“But if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?
And if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?”
“There’s a pain in my heart and a pain in my chest
I wanna feel human again
There’s a pain in my head and I’m losing my breath
I wanna feel human again
Kodaline, Human Again
As I laid in the CCU after 6.5 hours in theatres and just as many after that trying to shake off the anaesthetic enough to remain awake, these are the songs I played. I had prepared myself for outcomes at either end of the spectrum: new me or no me (fixed or dead, basically. Improved or killed). I hadn’t been prepared for the in-between. I hadn’t been prepared to wake up in recovery to the nurses discussing my tachycardia, and manage to hold on to enough waking moments to look up at my ECG trace and find my heart was just as grumpy as before. Before the anaesthetic snatched me back to (a far less deep) sleep for a few hours, I thought just long enough for my heart to sink. My consultant bumped into my mum on her way to the CCU as he was leaving the staff changing rooms, having swapped his surgical scrubs for his suit again. He told her some of it was guesswork, and that the last resort part/ all of it may need to be repeated. The next morning a doctor I hadn’t met before looked at the 10 lead ECG I was hooked up to and told me the surgery hadn’t worked. I’d need it again. Just like that, like it was nothing. I already knew. To them it’s just everyday, they get to walk away from it, they get to switch off from it, shut the door on it, walk away from the consequences. But to me… this is a disproportionately. Big. Deal.
(Oh, in case you haven’t noticed yet, Skippy – my heart – has totally stollen this post… apologies for the boring medical nature of this post but… this is life, and unfortunately I couldn’t choose to live a different one so I could blog about something worth reading about. I hate this part of me, this side of my life, but it’s a huge part of my life and if you choose to read on then… thank you)
In 24 hours my body went through it all: the terror of being in a hospital (as the surgical team all lined up in front of me and introduced themselves one by one in theatre, I trembled with fear and told them I was simply cold. The consultant anaesthetist held my hand. One of the theatre nurses that wheeled me to theatre had PTSD and was awesomely understanding), an anaesthetic, keyhole heart surgery (including a new-ish procedure to try to modify/remodel part – or as they discovered, two parts – of my heart), acidosis on top of already low blood pressure post-surgically (yes, I went in for heart stuff and could have died of a different thing), bleeding from one of the four puncture sites they went in through that resulted in a lump the size of my hand forming under my skin, two raw and bleeding cuts at the back of my throat from the endotracheal tube (which hurt to an impressive yet unexpected degree and left me unable to talk for a while but now just hurts like someone has taken a cheese grater to the back of my throat) oh, and rather a lot of PVCs (extra heartbeats).
I made one nurse cry that night by telling her I’d planned to join a gym when I woke up, and that I’d bought myself running shoes for my 21st birthday that I promised myself I wouldn’t wear until it was safe to try and run in them. I almost cried as I told her I felt like I’d never get to wear them. We talked about me – about the past few weeks, about all my time in hospital, about how people walk away from that because they don’t know how to deal with it. She told me I was incredible and that she wanted to clone me. I pointed out that probably wouldn’t be the best idea, given y’know… me. She spent about ten minutes trying to get me to say I would use my buzzer if I needed anything and there was nobody about, because I felt bad asking for anything at all. So naturally I just… didn’t tell anyone. The pain was bearable so I wasn’t going to bother anyone for pain relief, and I could hold my pee for over an hour before I would guiltily murmur between profuse apologies that the dam was about to be breached. I’m terrified of medical people. These doctors and nurses were so nice though, they spent ages just talking to me, trying to relax me, telling me they were paid to be there for me and it wouldn’t annoy them at Allan’s could I please stop thinking of myself as a bother and let them be there.
Emotionally I was done as soon as I fully came round that evening. Even as they discovered I was in acidosis in the early morning, I still told them I was going home. I’d had a sleepless night of crying and flashbacks and fear. I felt disempowered and afraid and I was intimidated to the point I was almost too scared to speak to anyone medical. They didn’t really know how to manage acidosis (seriously, I had to tell them until the appropriate consultant appeared) so it was pretty easy to persuade them all was well a few hours later with no further blood tests.
After the surgery I got breathless standing up. I got breathless walking to the bathroom. My chest HURT even though they hadn’t had to go in through my chest (I was warned that if the whole keyhole thing didn’t work, they’d take the more direct route instead). Not too unfamiliar. Only, I hadn’t done anything. And I hadn’t gone in there like that, and this pain was in new places. I wasn’t worried by it, just annoyed at my heart. The doctor was all “well you did have heart surgery less than 24 hours ago… it’s going to be a little upset and sore while it heals itself.” Upset and sore it is indeed.
I’m home now, and I feel worse than when I went to the hospital, which I wasn’t prepared for at all. It’s nothing disastrous, just breathlessness even when I’m laying down (except I currently can’t lay flat, so it’s sort of… laying back against 5,000,000 pillows). My lungs feel heavy, but no amount of air can satisfy them. If I stand I get so dizzy that I become spaced out and stupid. Walking makes me pant like I’m sprinting. My abdomen has slowly increased in girth to the point that my tops are so stretched they get pushed up and off of it. My ankles overflow from my socks. My legs are ice cold from about halfway down my shins, my hands are so cold the “capillary refill” is more like a “capillary NOPE” etc. etc. I’m exhausted, and pretty surprised about that to be honest. Even though none of this is new, just… worse than before.
I’m disappointed with how things are right now because my expectations were miles off of this either way. I wasn’t prepared with even the thought of more of this, especially not to this degree. My Brian (ok autocorrect missed up but I rather love this typo. I refer to my brain as Brian anyway) hadn’t even thought of that as a possible thing. I knew it might not work, but I didn’t quite manage to carry that though on to the “I will still feel like poop” part of that realisation. The success rates of the new and more complex one of the procedures (the last resort we were trying to avoid) weren’t that reassuring on paper but people kept telling me I was going to wake up a new person with their hope and optimism. But hope and optimism give you further to fall in order to reach reality. And so I’m disappointed, but… I don’t feel it yet.
To start with in the hospital I was deflated. There were tears (partly due to the drugs, which made me very weepy, partly to do with the fact it was a hospital so my PTSD had a field day, and partly because it hadn’t worked). I just didn’t know what to do, how to be, where to go next in my life, what the point in anything was. That’s a difficult place to be and my body was too exhausted to let my mind stay there. The staff said they were sorry, as if it was there fault my heart is a rebellious idiot. I just laid there and had a brain-to-heart conversation in which I told it exactly what I thought of it. It had even played up during the surgery so that they couldn’t get access to a particular part of it; additionally, my heart taunted them, behaving beautifully until they went to do the second procedure, and then taunting them by being a little poop and immediately refusing to behave in the way they wanted it to. When they tried to remodel one region of my heart (part of the third, new procedure that we hoped we wouldn’t have to do but then decided we kinda had no choice) my heart decided to play a trump card and reveal another anomaly, but when they tried to get near it they realised that they were so close to my phrenic nerve that if they slipped and damaged the nerve I wouldn’t have been able to breathe again, and by that route they kind of had less control of what they were doing, so they had to stop.
So right now I’ve no idea what I’m doing. No idea how to be. Plenty of thought but no emotional response to those thoughts. No idea what to do from this point onwards. Can’t even comprehend the current situation because my brain hasn’t accepted it yet. Don’t know how or where to go from here. My mum keeps telling me to revise and care about the exams I have in two weeks, but I don’t even know where my brain is at, and when it comes back down to earth and the hopelessness I felt when I first realised the surgery hadn’t worked returns… it’s going to be hard to find the motivation to get out of bed. So now, while it’s all surreal and I’m stuck in an emotional void full of thought with no feeling (which really was a smart place for my brain to stick itself – dissociation is a great temporary coping mechanism, and I do it a lot) I am trying to get a life. By that, I mean I am sleeping a lot, trying to beat my body into submission by pushing it to do as much as it can until it rebels to the point that I give in, cuddling a Labrador a lot, sometimes making lecture notes, and eating ice cream (in the words of one person who saw it, my throat has been “cut to ribbons”)
But see, I will get my head around this. At some point the dust will settle. Kicking and screaming, time will drag me through and then back into the boxing ring for the next round. Everything ends – the good, the bad, the amazing and the hopeless. No way but through all of it, even when you want to stay forever, even when you see no way out or never want to go there at all. And that perspective, that important, grounding reality, will return to my brain. So I will leave you with the lyrics from another band whose songs have got me through a lot, whose lyrics I cried to on repeat in a coronary care unit until finally I stopped feeling (many of their songs spring to mind, but this one was written about having hope when there isn’t any so…)
“Falling in this great divide
The earth it splits, and my feet on both sides
Though my faith is shaky
I keep on hoping (keep on hoping)
Keep on hoping (keep on hoping)
When it all feels broken
Got to keep your hope alive
Falling in this great divide
The earth it shifts, and I’m on the other side
And I swear the world is going crazy
But I keep on hoping (keep on hoping)
Keep on hoping (keep on hoping)
When it all feels broken
Got to keep your hope alive”
X ambassadors, Hoping
And that was the song, right there. That was the song that got me through that night, that initial realisation, the fear (along with Bastille and some Imagine Dragons and other artists whose lyrical art has become an emotional lifeline for me through the hardest things my body and the universe have thrown at me).
Maybe I will start saving for a games console, and I can live as a healthy normal human in a video game.
In order to keep on hoping, I’m going to have to start. That’s something scary and difficult for me to do, because it opens you up to a whole world of let downs and hurting (mostly because reality is a complete boob).
Even if we tried and failed, we can try again. Another anaesthetic. Another gamble. Another chance. And if that doesn’t work, then I’m in a bit of a situation. But maybe at some point before then my brain might decide all is not lost. I just know that in the next couple of days I’m going to feel like the world ended, because it carried on exactly the same as it was. I just don’t understand. I’m right back in the situation I was so desperate to escape from, the situation I’d gladly have died on an operating table just to leave behind.
This is all far tougher emotionally than it is physically. Forget the health hiccups. It’s the emotion they kick up that is killing me.