‘So how bad was the operation?’

‘So how bad was the operation?’

My heart attack has had such a sobering impact on so many of my friends, colleagues and family that I felt motivated to write these articles. Two people have given up smoking and another is now taking statins.

I have to issue the statutory warning that I’m not qualified to recommend the use of any medication. There are vague stories about adverse effects resulting from the continuous use of statins. 

Feedback on here has been sparse to date but I’ve had a number of replies via the social media links to the file. If viral propagation takes place (one share so far on Facebook) we might just make a difference by helping others to avoid complacency and self-deception and face up to reality.

This time, for the benefit of those who are facing a bypass operation, here’s how it goes:

On the day, and I was postponed twice because of more urgent cases, the porters arrived to wheel me, bed and all, into the theatre. I now understand how difficult it is to coordinate these affairs. Some patients also have diabetes and there’s a limit to how long such people can fast, as we all have to before an operation (‘nil by mouth’). Others have defective heart valves, too, or both ailments combined. It ain’t easy!

A nurse arrived and gave me a little calm-you-down pill (and what wouldn’t I give for a bottle of those) and in I went. In the theatre anteroom, I was asked to take deep lungfuls of oxygen to oxygenate my blood. This is because they have to stop the heart and hand your bodily functions over to a machine which monitors your vital signs. Then they squirted anaesthetic into a cannula in my hand and I was gone, in an instant. The next thing I knew it was 2.30 am and I could hear a soft voice telling me to wake up.

In other words, the operation itself is a push-over, except for the 2% chance you won’t make it! The trade off here is that, without the operation, I would have lived for around 4/5 months.

I felt no pain, just a slight soreness in my chest where they ran down my sternum with a small circular saw! I was aware of my right leg, too, where they harvested the vein they required. I have no varicose veins so this was straight forward. ‘The body is a rich source of spare parts’ the surgeon told me. ‘You have twice as many veins as you need’. Sometimes they use a redundant vein in your chest. I really think they enjoy cutting people up.

I was wheeled into theatre at 3.30 pm and the operation lasts around five hours. They like to keep you sedated for six hours so my 2.30 am wake-up call was spot on. Everything must have been OK.

I’d made friends with a guy called Albert and I was vaguely aware they were having trouble waking him in the bed behind me. My wife and eldest daughter Sally had arrived by this time and we were all concerned. I’m not sure what happened to him. New Cross is like a small city.

Sleep became my biggest problem. I’ve never been able to sleep on my back and I couldn’t sleep on my side until my sternum had more or less healed (after around a month) so I slept in the comfortable chair beside my bed most of the time, and the same when I got home. A nurse asked me to get into bed at one point so I waited until she went off duty and got back in my chair.

Because I had three stents fitted (@ £1050 each!) my blood had to be just right. I needed extra anti-coagulant because the stents are a foreign body but, too thin, and the vein grafts won’t heal. The surgeon and his team have to walk a tightrope. The result of this is that I ended up with around 1.2 L of fluid (mainly blood) in my chest cavity, which caused my left lung to collapse. My blood/oxygen levels were within specifications on one lung only. I used to be a pro trombonist, which probably explains this. Added to this, there was a temporary system failure with the result that the X-Ray images couldn’t be accessed on computer for a while.

The draining and re-inflation process was pretty unpleasant. I shall say no more.

They usually get you walking about the day after the operation but the above setback delayed my stroll for a day. I then spent a day or so walking the corridors carrying a bottle of blood joined to a tube that went into my left rib cage. This caused slight inconvenience at bed time, more reason to sleep in my chair.

I stood in front of the mirror in the ensuite bathroom. I had a multi-headed cannula inserted into the main artery in my neck, a tube leading from my ribs into a bottle, another cannula in the back of my left hand, plasters on my chest and leg, surgical stockings, and bruises around my abdomen where the anti-coagulants were administered at bedtime (to guard against DVT’s).

‘Good grief!’ I thought. ‘You look as if you’ve been hit by a truck’.

Despite it all, I’m recovering well and feeling better than ever. Shortly before rounding off this blog I went on a three mile march, descending and re-ascending around 300 feet and I felt great!

Looking back to my first admission by ambulance, I’m still in awe of the skill and professionalism of all those concerned. The ambulance personnel had sent precise details of my condition to the hospital and I was wheeled straight into the ‘Lab’ from the vehicle. A smiling and confident multi-national team approached me and it was obvious they all knew exactly what the problem was and where they had to go to put it right. Access to the heart artery with the stents was via my right wrist, with a local anaesthetic. I still can’t believe it.

Their fast and efficient response minimised damage to the heart muscles cause by the restriction of blood flow. This is very important.

In no time at all I was in bed wondering what had happened. I was still as high as a kite on morphine, too. And so very tired!

At my lowest point I dreamed my grandfather, a regular soldier, was standing at the foot of my bed holding his rifle. He looked so young and so frail. His eyes looked without seeing. Heaven only knows what he’d seen. ’Chin up lad’ he simply said.

I awoke with a start, my eyes dancing around the deserted ward in the subdued light. It had all seemed so real, as dreams often do, especially in the confused state people enter following major surgery.

What I’ve been through is nothing. Nothing.

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