Making the Healing Process a Bit Easier

The View from a Volunteer Visitor—by Adrienne White

One of the perks of having open heart surgery is that you can become a volunteer with the Pacific Open Heart Association! You may wonder, with a limited amount of time to talk to somebody before or after their surgery, what can you possibly share to reassure and inform patients? Let’s start closer to the beginning… As with many people, my need for open heart surgery came as a bit of a shock. At barely 50 years of age, and despite both parents having had heart attacks, the possibility of a heart attack hadn’t really occurred to me. I’m sure I’m not the only one who experienced this whole ‘heart adventure’ at the worst possible time. Not only was the idea of open heart surgery frightening, the prospect of months of healing was daunting. But you know, through the process, I learned a lot. For me, quadruple bypass surgery identified some unexpected life lessons. These lessons have been distilled into a simple acronym that has been referred to by some as the secret ingredient to recovering from open heart surgery with a bit more grace and ease: C.A.B.L.E. Here is what it stands for…

The C stands for Clarity

While working with a Board of Directors, I noticed that some of the board members were having difficulty getting help for their portfolio. As it turned out, they defined help way too broadly. They needed to be clear and specific. I find the same is true for healing from such a major surgery. Let’s face it—help is needed. People care, and, generally speaking, they truly want to help. I’m sure you’ve heard the well-meaning refrain, “Call me if you need anything.” But, typically, you don’t call and they don’t check in. The truth is, unless they have been through open heart surgery, chances are good that they do not have a clue about how they can help. If you give them the gift of clarity, the chances are much better that they will be willing and able to help. Weeks before my own surgery, I sent a very raw and honest email to my closest friends. I told them what was going on and clearly explained what I would need to make it through. Also, when talking to people, if they said, “Oh let me know if you need anything,” inevitably my answer was something like, “Great! Thank you for offering. I need rides to follow-up appointments, and to be honest, an occasional assist with cooking, laundry and making the bed would make healing easier. It is really uncomfortable for me to ask for help, but if you can assist with any of that, even once a month, that would be a massive help.”  Sometimes they could. Sometimes they couldn’t. Either way, people generally can’t help if they don’t know what you need. And wow, is it ever freeing for you and the people around you to know what you need. It takes courage, to be sure. I bet you’re courageous enough.

A stands for Ask and Allow

You might think that A stands for attitude, because a positive attitude makes all the difference. But, in this case, it stands for something different. When recovering from open heart surgery, especially when there are leg grafts involved, or you have additional health challenges, you need help. It is especially true if you are committed to protecting your sternum and incisions for optimal healing (and really, why wouldn’t you be). To be willing to ask politely for what you need, and then to allow someone to help, can be hard. In fact, it might be more difficult than recovering from surgery, but it can make recovery easier. I bet you’re brave enough.

B stands for Be aware

The doctors, the nurses, and caregivers are generally not psychic. They need to know if something seems off. I found that was true with my medication. Once I was home, I was coughing so much that I lost my voice. It happened to coincide with a cardiology appointment. When I explained that I had lost my voice from coughing, the doctor realized that I needed a medication change. Coughing as a side effect? Who knew? The point is, it’s important to keep track of what you are feeling and what you are noticing. Write it down. Keep a log, because even if you feel like your brain is operating perfectly, after anaesthesia and pain medication, it probably isn’t yet. In fact, you’d be smart to take someone with you to your follow-up appointments. I bet you’re wise enough.

L stands for Look at your progress…

…from the day of your surgery, not a few weeks before. As a volunteer, I’ve come across some folks who are frustrated because two weeks before bypass surgery they could run up and down stairs. A few days after surgery they struggled with only a few stairs. Let’s face it, this is a big surgery. It takes time to heal. It takes patience. The one delightful thing about recovering from heart surgery is that the milestones, especially at the beginning, are plentiful and quite predictable. At least that was my experience. I found that the milestones can be encouraging, even if it is just being able to go to the bathroom without adult supervision. I bet you can look at progress from the day of surgery.

E is for Ensure

Ensure that the people around you know that they are appreciated. While you’re in hospital, cleaners create an environment to reduce your exposure to germs. The nurses, doctors, and various care professionals do their utmost to answer your questions and keep you as comfortable as possible, though their priority is your health. As the patient, recovery is typically a tough slog, but remember, this whole process is also tough on the people who care about you. Take time to let them know that they’re appreciated, even on the lousy days. I bet you are positive enough to do it. C.A.B.L.E. Have clarity. Ask for help and allow. Be aware of changes. Look at progress from day zero and ensure that the people around you are acknowledged. These are a few of the choices and behaviours that will help make your healing process easier, for you and the people who care about you.

Adrienne White, International Speaker & Leadership Consultant