Side Effects

My dad

“Coronary arteries are the small blood vessels that supply the heart muscle with oxygen and nutrients. Fats and cholesterol can accumulate inside these small arteries, and the arteries can gradually become clogged.”

On Friday, my father had cardiac bypass surgery. Thankfully, this was not a result of having a heart attack, but instead a way to preempt one. These days, cardiac bypass is a “common surgery,” a polite assurance I heard repeated over and over to me last week, from close friends, knowledgeable co-workers and fact sheets on the internet.

My job is to write, edit and publish online health information, a job I have always taken quite seriously.

Yet this past week, I have been stunned to feel the full emotional brunt of being the person on the other side on the internet — the “user” or “reader” as we call them — who is scouring the web, hungry to find any and every detail on cardiac bypass surgery.

“Heart bypass surgery creates a detour or “bypass” around the blocked part of a coronary artery to restore the blood supply to the heart muscle. The surgery is commonly called Coronary Artery Bypass Graft, or CABG (pronounced “cabbage”).

After the patient is anesthetized and completely free from pain, the heart surgeon makes an incision in the middle of the chest and separates the breastbone.”

Suddenly, the 1,844 miles separating me from my parents felt ever more vast, as I knew that I’d be reliant on crappy cell phone service and e-mail to get updates on my father’s precarious condition as he went into, and came out of, surgery.

“In the traditional surgery, the patient is connected to the heart-lung machine, or bypass pump, which adds oxygen to the blood and circulates blood to other parts of the body during the surgery.”

“This is necessary because the heart muscle must be stopped before the graft can be done.

“Did you know that they will put me on a heart-lung machine, and then re-start my heart when it’s over?” my Dad asked me on the eve of his surgery. I was standing at a bus stop, tapping my foot, lugging my giant work purse around, listening to him talk from many states and a time zone away.

Yes, I told him. I didn’t continue, telling him how I knew they were going to have to shock his heart awake, after extracting vein tissue from his legs and stitching them into his fragile coronary arteries, bypassing the cursed blockages that seem to plague the men in my family.

At that moment, I was grateful for vast documents on the internet; I was steeled from the jolt of hearing the details of surgery for the first time, from him.

“It is amazing,” I said, instead.

“Other surgical techniques for this procedure are being used more frequently. One popular method is to avoid the use of the heart-lung machine. This is called off-pump coronary artery bypass or OPCAB. This operation allows the bypass to be created while the heart is still beating.

The advantage here is that use of the heart-lung machine can lead to some loss of memory and mental clarity…”

And then, suddenly, I wasn’t so grateful.

So here I am now, typing, past midnight on a Sunday night, knowing I’ll be bleary-eyed at work tomorrow, but not worrying about that: I’m too busy hoping my father is currently pain-free and sleeping restfully. I’m hoping, in fact, that I can somehow absorb any discomfort or memory loss he may be feeling at his current distance from me, a drive of 33 hours, a flight, under ideal travel conditions, of 9 hours.

After the operation, the patient will spend 5 – 7 days in the hospital, with the first 2 hours in an intensive-care unit (ICU). In the ICU, heart function is monitored continuously.”

Three days post-surgery, and I’m relieved that everything has been OK — my father is recuperating well; he has been moved out of ICU and has started taking short (mandated) assisted walks down the hospital hallway.

But now I’ve shifted my worries to my mother, who was being comforted by (and, in turn, comforting) my little brother, but is now left alone to be the sole familial supporter for my father until my brother and I arrive on Friday. There’s also guilt that, when she had rotator cuff surgery, I didn’t worry like this: The internet didn’t sound nearly as scary when I read up on her procedure. Suddenly, that seems inexcusable.

“After (CABG) surgery, it takes 4 – 6 weeks to start feeling better…The full benefits from the operation may not be determined until 3 – 6 months after surgery.”

What is it about the attempts to surgically alter the heart of my father that has panicked me so? The sleeplessness, the cathartic blog post that has yet to feel cathartic, the plane ticket hastily purchased, the chewed cuticles — all from damn coronary artery disease, a disease pervasive in my genes, a disease so common in my family and many families, with a cure so common, yet so frighteningly uncommon when it’s your parent under the knife.

(Thank you so much to the National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus, which is blessedly available via public domain.)

6 thoughts on “Side Effects

  1. UJ says:

    Working in and around health care does not prepare us in any useful way for when someone we love must receive a major intervention for a serious illness. I’ve been involved at one nonclinical level or another for 20 years or more, and I am the worst relative of a patient you can hope to find. One of the worst patients too, I suppose.
    I’m glad your father is doing well!

  2. dvictory says:

    Dad just read this and he definitely had to have Kleenex. Me too. I will let him do his own blog. I know one thing. It feels like maybe you have done one thing right in this life when your children feel like this about you. It is agony for those waiting to see if you are still alive.

    Your know that some form of this goes on every where–all the time, but it still feels like you are the only one, or only family, feeling such anxiety at the time.

    Thank you all the angels of medicine. Those in ICU, those who plod away in nursing homes, oncology, etc. In these times of extreme agony, like with my mother’s congestive heart failure, you often start believing in angels. You seem to meet some of the finest people on the Earth.

    Thank you so much for your concern, my lovely daughter. I am glad you said it. Do not feel bad about not sweating out my shoulder surgery. I know that you wished I didn’t have to go through that. But Heart Bypass Surgery is different. So many things can go wrong. It truly is putting your life on the line!!!! It is facing your own mortality over and over. It is having friends look at you with that silent expression on their face and hurt in their heart that they may never see you again.

    I put that thought out of my head as best I could, (just as I did with my mother for two years) and tried to do the best I could. Thank goodness Erik has some navigator in him. I was having a little trouble with the twists and turns of a new building and its winding floors. He seemed to know where to go, instinctively.

    I will keep my eye on your father for now. Each day relaxing a little bit more.

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