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Three weeks after open heart surgery, I've come to terms with losing control

Sometimes someone will agree that, yes, it’s a bit crap, and there’s not much anyone can do about it for the moment. That’s often all you need to hear.

Seán McKiernan

IT WAS A really hot morning back in June that my ordeal began. I remember it because I needed a pocket to carry my thermometer, forcing me to take a jacket to work – the only person on the Dart with one.

Earlier in the year, I had had an infection that travelled to my heart, so when I woke that morning feeling ill I was alert to the symptoms. But I never imagined I could actually be sick again – the thermometer was just a precaution.

As the day wore on, the temperature on the thermometer grew and grew. I was hospitalised that night and by the following morning it was apparent that the infection I thought I’d cleared had returned.

It had already caused serious damage to one of the valves, leaving no choice but to operate. But before that could happen, I needed a two-week course of antibiotics to reduce the infection as much as possible.

Waiting for surgery

“Living” in hospital is a pretty strange experience, particularly when you don’t really feel that sick. The antibiotics used to clear the infection quickly removed most of my symptoms and so other than being unusually tired I felt normal.

But in the hospital world, I was anything but normal. I was young, much younger than anyone else I met. In the whole month I was in hospital, I never met a patient under the age of 35.

I also looked relatively healthy. I’m tall, stout and have sallow skin – not your typical shuffling, frail patient.

My healthy facade combined with the scale of my impending surgery made me a pretty unique case. Doctors loved it. (This is bad. When you go to the doctor, you always want them to be bored. When they get excited or interested, that’s when you know you’re in trouble.)

Semblance of normality

I was lucky enough to have a private room for the majority of my stay, which soon became my room. Clothes were strewn across chairs, books scattered on the window sill, the bed was always unmade.

But despite trying to make my room as homely as possible, any semblance of normality could be easily shattered. Often I was lying on the bed, scrolling Facebook or reading, when the door would without warning burst open and in would troop a team of medics to examine and fire questions at me.

During a pause, when the consultant might ask my nurse for a clarification, I’d finally get a chance to glance at the company cramped in my small room. It seemed like a whole jumble of senior doctors, nurses, junior doctors and (if you crane your head around the corner) five or six med students.

It was invariably a bizarre and pretty comical experience, but I  sometimes couldn’t help feeling like a bit of an exhibition.

Post-surgery life

This inconvenience, of course, paled in comparison to the real struggles I faced post-surgery. I’m home now and well into a steady recovery, but the battle has been as much a mental as a physical one.

Three weeks after the operation, everyday life is still characterised by chronic exhaustion, bouts of severe pain and constant, endless discomfort.

Even though my stamina limits my daily walks to around 10 minutes, my mind is often back in my old body – the one that used to go running with (relative) ease and step over puddles with disdain or walk from point A to point B without it constituting “exercise”.

It’s tough to accept that my body, for the moment at least, simply isn’t capable of doing what it once was.

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Importance of listening

Since nobody I know has ever had a similar experience, it’s easy to bottle it up and not talk about what I’ve been through. The funny thing, though, is they don’t need to know what it’s like. Just being there and listening is as good as knowing.

It’s amazing how many people (with the best intentions in the world) will offer a positive spin to try cheer you up. What they don’t know is that you’ve already been through every possible permutation of the positives and the negatives, leaving a pretty slim chance that they’ll offer a perspective you haven’t already considered.

But sometimes someone will just agree that, yes, it’s a bit crap, and there’s not much anyone can do about it for the moment. That’s often all you need to hear.

I’ve learned too that feeling down, sad or even angry is okay, maybe normal.

Of course, wallowing in resentment or getting stuck in depression can be dangerous, but as long as you’ve got people around you to pull you out of your own head when you’ve sunk too deep, allowing yourself to be upset at a bum deal is, in my experience at least, a good thing.

Lack of control

This experience has not been an easy one, but given time it will pass and life will go on. What that life will be like is a decision for another day.

Last month, the fabric of life was swept from under my feet, leaving me with literally no control. But there’s an odd serenity to that.

The relentless question “is this what I want to do with my life?” simply doesn’t apply anymore – I don’t have a choice.

Seán McKiernan is a 24-year-old Dubliner. You can follow his blog, A Mater of the Heart, here.

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Seán McKiernan

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