Chapter #6 sugar coated bitter truth – slaves – 2013

heart surgery

It was about a week before I received the letter.

It said after discussing the results of my angiogram with colleagues at Southampton, a by-pass operation would be a better form of treatment for me than stenting and I had been referred to a consultant at Southampton. Pretty conclusive then.

I had another appointment at the brain clinic although by now we pretty much knew what the problem was. My seizure was described as provoked, secondary most likely to some kind of cardiac event leading to syncope and a head injury. And my brain MRI was normal – hooray, just my heart then. We did purchase a CD though with my brain scan pictures on it. Spooky stuff, seeing the profile of your own face with your brain behind it.

It was probably about time to google heart bypass operation. I was, vainly and with no apology, fairly preoccupied by the scar that I may have after this. I’ve got three tattoos, the latest one I had done this March. Building up to it I’d been watching a programme called tattoo fixers on TV. A lady on the show had been in to the pop up ‘studio’ having had heart surgery several years before and had had a delicate rose tattooed over her scar. Heart surgery to me then had sounded pretty serious and she had a long scar reaching from her mid chest, straight down her cleavage. I hadn’t thought much then about what had happened beneath the scar.

So the first thing I googled wasn’t actually heart bypass operation but heart bypass operation scars – images. Well, google doesn’t deliver bedside manner images. If that’s what you ask for, that’s what you get. Realms of them. Mostly on guys and, I now know, mostly quite fresh as given 12-18 months many scars fade to barely noticeable. I read an account by Arnold Schwartzenegger who, when he was told he needed heart surgery, had said to his doctor just book me somewhere in Mexico and have done with it. If I tell my wife she’ll want to talk about it all the time. Then she’ll tell her Mum who’ll want to talk about it all the time. Just do the op and then I’ll go home. His doctor had pointed out that he would have an 8 inch scar down his chest and possibly his wife would notice so maybe he should tell her in advance.

I thought about the scar for a long time. I mean, days, weeks, not just hours. Way more probably than actually considering what would be going on under the scar. Weirdly, I actually quite like my boobs and chest. I’m not particularly a cleavage girl but was aware that 90% of my wardrobe would show my scar. There were various articles on line about how different women felt about their scars. Generally, as a guy I would imagine, it’s quite a macho thing to have a massive chest scar. As a woman, not so much. However, as an alternative woman and a drummer in a punk band I kind of came round to the fact that it was gonna be and look pretty damn cool – and was, of course, a tattoo opportunity for the future.

So, what exactly did a heart bypass operation entail? It’s pretty much like a road by pass and diverts blood around narrowed or clogged parts of the major heart arteries. A surgeon will use a blood vessel from another area of the body and graft / sew this on around the damaged area. The original artery remains in place. Literally a by pass is created.

I didn’t realise this before my operation but I actually had a severe blockage of the left anterior descending artery. This artery supplies the heart with 80% of it’s blood and runs down the outside of the left hand side of the heart. It is the main heart artery and heart attacks involving it are sometimes called the widow maker. I’m pretty glad I didn’t actually have this much information before I went in for surgery. Or if I had I may not actually have moved for the time between diagnosis and surgery. The whole thing is pretty fascinating though. If I was younger, being a bit handy with a needle and thread, I might well have considered retraining to be a surgeon. As it was though, 7 years at med school now and the cost alone, window dressing seems by far the easy option. I couldn’t find one female heart surgeon out there though. Not that I wanted too particularly, I just find these things interesting.

The part I most had to accept / deny was the cutting through the breastbone. I knew I’d be heavily sedated. I’d had general anaesthetic on two previous occasions so had no worries about waking up mid op or feeling anything. Before my first operation, to remove a gangleon from my hand, a work colleague had described a general anaesthetic she’d had as feeling like the best sleep she’d ever had. I have to say she was right and it was good advice for allaying any fears. But it is typical that to get to my heart, the surgeon would have to saw through my sternum for fucks sake. That’s just not a good thought. I don’t even think it would be a good thought for a heart surgeon if they had to have a heart operation. It’s possibly one of those things you shouldn’t have to consider as a human being. I was quite fascinated as a kid by the Aztecs sacrificing their victims by pulling out their still beating hearts. It was all seeming a bit too close to home now.

However, I do take my hat off to the older guys I’ve known and who my parents and friends have known who’ve had to go through any sort of heart surgery. It seems kind of accepted that a percentage of older guys will have to have heart surgery, they’re usually the demographic. But I now feel bad that I’ve never known what a heart by pass was and it must be just as bloody terrifying for them as it is for me now. Cutting through your sternum is gonna require a saw, right? Just before going into hospital I’d bought the Slaves new album and I think the track’s called ‘Play Dead’ and at the end there’s the sound of a chain or circular saw along with a guy demonically laughing – still makes me feel a bit queasy…

My other slightly interesting development was having to take medication every day. I know, I know loads of people do but I never have. I only take paracetamol or ibuprofen for a particularly hectic headache or period pain and the thought of being on pills every day now was quite strange. I put off starting to take them for a few days. Then I sat down with all the cautions and side effects and worked out which ones needed food and particular times to take them. I would take my statin, bisopropalol and half the angina tablet in the morning. The aspirin had to be taken with food and as my breakfast habits were a little sporadic I decided I’d take this one in the evening with the second half of the angina tablet.

The pharmacist at the hospital had said the angina tablets worked by keeping the blood vessels open. However, this wasn’t just in the heart but all over the body. Especially in the head so I could potentially expect headaches. Well, yes, I’d call that a headache. Not like a normal headache tho, really even and distinctly pharmaceutical in nature, and wrapped around the bottom of the back of the head. Also, annoyingly, this was the tablet that I had to take in two halves over the course of the day so once in the morning and once in the evening I had to swallow something that I knew was going to cause pain. It was a bit like a Pavlovian puppy response. I was caught in a loop of just shifting the headache then having to start another one. It seemed worse at night when for about three hours it would take a grip and I’d just have to lie there, awake, knowing it would shift at about 3am to have to start it all again in about 6 hours time. And drinking. Med taking has certainly shelved that little habit. Basically it just makes you feel pants. Light headed, like drunk really quickly and not in a good way. More headaches, hot flushes, dry mouthed – fun, fun fun!

But don’t get me wrong. I am supremely grateful to modern medicine as I haven’t mentioned the best thing of all about all these tablets. I don’t get my chest pains anymore. I mean, it feels incredible, after possibly 18 months of intermittent pains, to have been diagnosed correctly and for there to be pills out there to reverse my symptoms until I can have an operation to properly sort it out. I fully salute science and doctors for being on it today and for many years previously that I am able to benefit directly. And also to the many patients who didn’t make it in through the exploratory days of heart surgery so that I can survive today. Even so, I do feel pretty wiped out. The headaches remained severe every day for about three weeks and then gradually they started to recede. The hot flushes were really hot and took me by surprise every time when they came on with their severity. I still wasn’t entirely sure they weren’t menopausal as my periods by this time were almost non existent but the thought of tackling a menopause with the doctor right now as well as a heart condition was too much.

In all honesty menopause – you can wait.

Chapter #7 Waiting for the Nightboat available now!!

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