I was lying in critical care.

After five hours under the cardiac surgeon’s care, I have to say it was bliss in intensive care. The pain drugs flowed freely though the multiple number of lines entering into

Let's see...this one leads to the...ummm.....ummmm

Let’s see…this one leads to the…ummm…..ummmm

my neck and wrist.  Forget that my bed space and the area around my body looked the back of my High Definition TV set and home theatre. There were cables and lines and diodes everywhere…pain killers and beta-blockers and blood thinners and catheters and heart telemetry and blood pressure cuffs and pace maker wires and saline drips and chest drainage tubes, and who knows what else, were exiting and entering my body through a Medusa-like tangle.

I was wired for sound and without exaggeration, it took my nurse almost 20 minutes to untangle and create order from the plastic and rubber kitten’s ball of hoses and tubes. And honestly, I could care less,  I was as high as a  red-faced Metropolitan Mayor!

But eventually, Nurse Judy fought through the tangled mass and treated me to a wonderful bird bath, getting rid of the pinkish disinfectant – and the odd dried blood spot – that I was slathered with during the op.  I took stock of the 35 cm incision from collarbone to sternum and the 25cm incision down my left forearm, the IV in my neck and I chilled – a kind of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds chill – which was okay, because as you remember, Ringo Starr was supposed to be one of my surgeons (see Act VI).

babel_fish_diagramI had visitors…my wife, my brother, and my Mom and Dad came to see me and spent some time chatting. At least that is what it sounded like in my brain. I have no idea what came out of my lips…gobbledygook for all I know. But it’s okay, they had a babel fish with them – or at least they smiled at the right times. I think I lasted about 7 minutes before I was too tired to form any semblance of words. My body was telling me to shut up. And rest. So I did.

But don’t worry; even after everyone left I was never alone.  I had a new friend that I had to carry 24 and 7, and that I never wanted to be without.

No – not morphine or other opiates

I was Linus van Pelt. I had my new security blanket. It was (and still is) my chest pillow.  I hugged my “chest pillow”… a heavy flannel sheet that was folded and folded and folded and folded like an origami swan, and then tucked into a pillow case. Hugging that pillow with every ounce of my strength was the only thing that stopped me from feeling like my chest was splitting wide open when I moved, which was rare, or when I coughed – which unfortunately wasn’t as rare as I would hope.  Moving I could control. But the cough…unexpectedly and inconveniently, I coughed the weak cough of the injured, as my lungs tried to take over responsibility for providing me air and getting rid of the phlegm in my lungs – an unfortunate side

I love my pillow...

I love my pillow…

effect of intubation and having a machine breathe for you for over 5 hours.

I enjoyed my private room and around-the-clock care. I even had a great chat with one of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bypass… a blue vested cardiac volunteer (obviously wearing the smock prepares one for a future career as a Walmart Greeter).  Funnily enough, we had served together in the past and he had just recently celebrated his Depart with Dignity ceremony from the Canadian Forces – a medical release due to the operation. I had not even considered how this whole episode would likely end my Army career. Eeeek!

We talked briefly, once he overcame his shock over the fact I was a fellow member for the Zipper Club at 48 years of age. As I would find out later, once you become part of the Club, it is like you learn the “secret handshake” – there are just so many of “The Bypassed” out there. Every time I turned around, there was someone else telling me how they had blocked arteries and that a bypass had changed their lives.

Great news.  I just wish I wasn’t 20 years younger than them.

I was pretty content in my little drug-infused hamster ball.  But, sadly, nothing lasts forever – not even the super-drugged up nirvana of post-surgery opiates. And despite the wisps of hope that I would stay in Intensive Care because the cardiac post –op ward was full, it was not to be. A bed came free in “general population”’; I hope it was because someone was discharged, but no one could tell me.

So I was moved from my deluxe single accommodation to a semi-private room.

Now I have not written much about the several room-mates I had over the course of my almost two weeks in the hospital. For the record, I had five with a joint age of 324…the youngest at 45 and the oldest clocking in at 84. And save for one, the average stay together was for almost three days at a time.

I tell you, if you want to learn about people – hang around with someone who is scared to death but tries not to show it. I learned a lot about the human condition of those who face the prospect of open heart surgery. Yes it is routine – but it is complex and there are risks. And apparently you want to get a lot of your chest (no pun intended)

Firstly, there are no inhibitions or privacy…the flimsy little cotton curtain between bed spaces is not very sound proof. Whether you want to or not, you learn a lot about bodily functions, diagnoses, prognoses, family, lifestyle and a host of other things that you would never, ever, ever care to share with a stranger – unless you are a stranger sharing a hospital room and something critical in your body is not working properly.

I learned about my roomies’ relationships – as couples, with their children, with their families, with their friends. I learned about regrets and a few things that would change when the operation was all over.  I might have even shared a few thoughts myself…though I am more of a listener than a talker. It is amazing how a few well placed “tsks, tsks” and some reflective listening will calm the soul.

But back to post-operative care…

Being in general population sucked. I went from one-on-one care to one nurse caring for 8-12 patients. And at night, the ratio got worse. Funnily enough, CBC carried a



news-piece just after I was discharged reporting on the noise levels in a hospital ward. They reported it was terrible; hardly conducive to rest or sleep or recovery.  I can tell you it is brutal – day or night. Between alarms, call buttons, PA announcements, jovial staff, the food carts, cleaning staff, patients in pain, it was a wonder I slept at all. Add to that the sad and unnerving coughing of the post-operative smoker trying to rid their lungs of cigarette goo in their lungs, it was absolutely hellish.


I slept on and off – more a series of three-hour cat naps between the oral doses of pain killers. Unfortunately the pain killers came every four hours. It is funny – actually, sad – how your body knows it is time for another dose. I can only imagine the pain of the junkie as the glow wears off; I became a clock-watcher – especially at night. For the last hour, I slept in fifteen minute bursts hoping for the nurse to magically appear with the little plastic pill cup that contained another three hours of pain-free sleep. During that last 45 minutes of hell, I tried shifting into a comfortable position, by raising my back, or lowering my legs, or shifting on to my side, or arching  – but as I was weak and in pain, I could not even manage that to get relief. Several times I had to call the nurses to untangle me from the absolutely tortuous positions I had managed to slide into.  I tried to be brave, but I have to tell you, it pushed me to the limit. I tried to hold out as long as I could and wait for the nurses to help me, but more often I gave in, and pushed the call-button forl help and relief. I did not feel empowered or healthier or stronger. I felt weak and vulnerable and unhappy.  And I was a young, fit, robust fellow. I can only imagine how my elder room mates were fairing.But over time, things got better. My sense of humour never left me – it thought about being snarky and mean – but that is not me.  Plus, no sense in pissing off the pain relievers! As I got better, I learned to enjoy the little things in life: peeing without a catheter, orange Jell-O, a shower, clean socks, sweatpants and a hoodie. And I walked…first just to the toilet; then 10 m, then 40, and finally being able to walk to the nurses’ station to grab an apple juice and make toast.  Like I said, the simple things – smelling burnt toast without having a seizure – made every day better.

I often thought that I was not ready to go home – I had pain, my chest bone was still healing, coughing hurt like no one’s business, I had 60cm of stitches, and I had three holes in my diaphragm from various removed hoses that were trying to patch themselves up. I couldn’t imagine being without my meds and staff to move me.  But after 72 hours in general population, I was ready. I could not stand being there – eating steamed food that tasted like cardboard, sitting among the sick and injured, listening to the pain and agony, and trying to keep up a happy face. I wanted to be in my house, with my wife and my stuff. So after showing the staff that I could climb up and down and a flight of stairs, I was granted parole.

Hallelujah!  A quick visit by my Surgeon and I was sprung free. With discharge instructions that included restrictions on how much I could do, how much I could lift, how much I should eat, I was allowed to leave. My wife helped me out of the hospital, and as I waited in the hospital lobby while she went collect the car, I was dazzled by the sheer volume of noise and activity around me: conversations and food line ups and questions to the Info Desk; the smells of Tim Horton’s coffee and muffins. Though my life had been on hold for over two weeks, for everyone else the game of Life had gone on. I was like a country farm-hand in the Big City, marvelling at the chaos and cacophony. I was no longer a patient, I was just a guy.

And off we went into uncharted territory. Armed with only a few manuals, some well-intended verbal advice, a couple of 8.5×11 sheets on post-operative issues and pain 3x5fragile-largemanagement techniques, we headed off. The ride home was nerve-wracking for both my wife and me – I had the resiliency of a raw egg. The only thing between my breast bone and the seatbelt was my “issue heart pillow/security blanket” – a cheerful, red, overstuffed pillow the size of a kids’ rugby ball, snuggled firmly in place to absorb any jostling, bumps, sighs, sneezes or coughs. I hugged that pillow like it was toilet paper from the Carnival cruise-liner Triumph.

And that was the tone for the first few days of recovery: angst, hesitation, worry…every ache and palpitation, every heavy heart beat, every sharp pain, every perceived redness or soreness around an incision was a siren call to my internal hypochondriac. I imagined misaligned grafts and an over-taxed heart or rampant infection. I was not that strong mentally or physically, despite what my external face said.

But that did not last forever. With the strong support – physically and mentally and emotionally – of my wife, my kids, my parents, my brother and sister, and the multitude of friends far and wide who sent me positive energy, I moved through the yucky bit and beyond.

And now, here I am at Surgery plus 16 days: full of vim and vigour and appetite. The strength has returned and so has the humour. I walked almost 2km today. And I am getting better.

And with that, I will sum up the Coronary Chronicles.

It has been a wild ride. I hope that my exercise in self-indulgence has entertained you as much as it has helped me. I also hope that I have been a cautionary tale for some of you – especially for you guys out there who are in my age bracket. Alpha male or not, recognise we are not invincible and immortal. Many of us have been ridden hard and put away wet.

Listen to your body…get things tested…check for bumps and discoloured moles.  Early warning will increase the odds; go into hand with pocket Kings and show the House that it can be beaten.

And now on to bigger and better things…when I write again, I will be just be a regular simple fellow…albeit a little more battle-scarred.