That’s the most common question I’ve been getting the last couple weeks. That, and “How are you feeling?”
My standard answer: “Yes and no.”
Yes: I like my job. I like what I do. I find it both challenging and rewarding. I’m very proud of the projects I do, and get kind of giddy when I can point to something while driving and tell my companion, “I did that.”
I’m looking forward to getting back into something resembling a productive and reliable routine. Read my Grump blog post from today to see what I mean. Most people don’t realize it, but humans *need* structure. It adds purpose, and we *need* purpose to balance our lives. This is why many people who become long-term unemployed or retire and sit in a rocking chair seem to physically and mentally deteriorate quickly. People need purpose. I need purpose.
No: I won’t lie, I kind of like having my time as my time. I’ve been free to come and go as I please. This is probably the biggest aspect I miss about being a self-employed consultant a few years ago… flexibility. Having flexibility, not being so rigid that I feel hemmed in, is huge to me. If I wanted to make an appointment at 10am on Tuesday, I’d check my calendar and schedule accordingly. I never shirked responsibility or deadlines, but I had flexibility. I will miss that.
“Are you ready to go back to work?”
Today is November 1st… the 26th anniversary of my Dad’s passing, but I digress… and I have medical clearance to go back to work on Monday the 5th, four days away. I am excited and looking forward to it. (Ask me again next Wednesday. LOL!) I am feeling so much better, in many ways better than before the surgery. I’ve been warned that the long days will wear me out, but I work at a desk and should be ok. If I do have some days that catch up to me, I suspect they’ll be few and will go away in a short time.
I’ve addressed this before, but what to do with all this ‘extra’ time? It has been seven weeks today since my surgery. I’ve been progressing well. I keep feeling better and better. Late last week I took what I feel is a remarkable turn… for the better. All of a sudden I started what I would categorize as great. I could move faster and easier than I have since, well… I can’t remember when. Now, don’t get me wrong. I still have my weight lifting restrictions, and if I forget I still get very clear reminders that I have other limitations, as well, but overall, I’m feeling really good.
With that, is my mental faculties. I feel like my mind is engaging much better than it has. Things seem clearer and my brain cells are more active. I’m thinking like I used to, and that especially feels good. But now with all this time, I’m starting to go stir crazy. I was warned by my friends that this would happen, and they were right.
I went into work today for an optional employee meeting. We have these once a month, “Lunch/Breakfast with Management” they call it. It was presented to me as an option by my supervisor last week, and I jumped at it. I have to say that I enjoyed it, too. Not only was it something to do, it felt mentally stimulating, at east much more than I’ve been experiencing lately sitting at home. I mean, one can watch only so many episodes of Forensic Files while surfing Facebook before they start to go stir crazy.
I haven’t had this officially confirmed with my surgeon yet, but I am eyeing Monday, November 5th, for getting a doctor’s release and going back to work full time. That seems like a reasonable goal. I have tentative plans to go to the Manchester office, where I used to work, and have lunch with friends next week. I talked with my supervisor today, and we hashed out plans for me to continue my physical rehab after I return to work. It will be three times a week until roughly Christmas, but I will be able to do it with minimal disruption to my work schedule or productivity. That’s good.
I have to say, in spite of some feelings of stir craziness, I’m also feeling greatly encouraged and optimistic. So many things make more sense now, in hindsight, for why I was feeling so poorly for so long. I won’t say the surgery was the best thing to ever happen to me, but I am feeling good and encouraged and excited going forward.
Many people worry about this, and I’ll admit that I did, too. I mean, who doesn’t like good food, right? We can all breath a sigh of relief, it’s not quite as drastic as our fears led us to believe. A couple friends of mine told me that, for the first month or so after surgery, food tastes terrible. Not different or unrecognizable, per se, just bad. Lucky for me, my experience wasn’t like that. Food still tasted like it was supposed to, though maybe a little ‘dull’ for a short time. In my case, food tasted fine and I was able to eat almost immediately.
The first day in ICU I was restricted to a solely liquid diet, but that soon after surgery I really didn’t want to eat anyway, so that was fine with me. The first day and a half in the regular hospital room they fed me normal meals, but I wasn’t all that hungry so I ate only bits and portions. One meal I didn’t eat at all because I simply wasn’t hungry. After that I ate fine, and my appetite has been normal since.
And for what it’s worth the hospital food was actually pretty decent, even good at times… though the “pot roast” had the texture of something out of old Army C-rations. There’s a not too fond memory I’d rather push back into the deep dark recesses of my brain.
The big change in my diet kind of surprised me. Being diabetic and having everybody continually harp on me about blood sugar and carbs I was expecting a huge restriction there. Not so. Now don’t get me wrong, carb watching is still as important as ever. I still have to keep them in check and do the right thing. No, the big thing for me, at least for the foreseeable future, is sodium. I need to keep my salt intake down and well-managed. My hospital meals were specially designated as low-sodium, or possibly even no-sodium, I forget. They also made it a point to provide packets of Mrs Dash for seasoning to replace the salt. So the #1 dietary goal for me right now is reduce my sodium intake. I can do that.
About 15-ish years ago I eliminated added table salt on all foods, except french fries, corn on the cob, and popcorn. I did that for several years, but slowly backed away and started adding table salt to everything again. Well, now I’m determined to go back to that goal… and add french fries to the no salt rule. I even used Mrs Dash on some corn on the cob tonight and it was very good. I still can’t envision unsalted popcorn, though.
I’m also making an effort to make more foods either from scratch, or at least simpler. Packaged foods and mixes usually contain a bunch of sodium, for both taste and preservative purposes. And here’s a fun fact: Low-calorie, reduced-calorie, non-fat, and low-fat foods… basically anything packaged and marketed as an allegedly ‘healthier’ alternative… almost always have something increased to make up for what they took out, and very often that addition is a boatload of sodium. For a few years now my position has been to eat the real thing, just watch portion control.
So, here’s my ‘new’ dietary regimen…
Reduce sodium greatly.
Keep watching my carbs.
Watch my portions… not easy for me, but I’ve been good so far.
Eat real food, not bastardized concoctions, just watch portions (there’s that theme again).
See, it’s really not all that bad. Instead of ordering a meal and an appetizer, I pick one or the other, but not both. If I go to fast food, instead of a value meal and another burger as a side… yes, I do that… just the value meal. No more side burgers. And guess what… it’s really not that bad. I’m still satisfied when done.
Aka exercise. Proper exercise and physical rehabilitation is crucial to a good recovery. This is something that both the professionals and the people who have gone through this have told me, and it is stressed a lot. Some people have told me about family members who blew off any physical aspect to recovery, and suffered for it. They either had more medical problems or at least took far longer to recover.
The first thing you’re going to do is walk. Three to four times a day in the hospital, even in ICU, and even as early as the next morning after the surgery. It’s not going to be far at first. It certainly won’t be fast. Are you familiar with Tim Conway’s old man character on the Carol Burnett Show who shuffled along with 2″ steps? Yeah, it’s going to be kind of like that. In the beginning you will have an entourage of 2 to 3 nurses dealing with your various IVs and tubes, etc., plus to make sure you don’t fall. A few days later you will get the regular physical rehabilitation people coming to see you 1 to 2 times a day, and they’re going to push you to go a little further, make sure you can do stairs, and so on.
Next comes a more rigorous rehabilitation, at the hospital three times a week. Here you do things like a treadmill, exercise bicycle, stretching, etc. I just started this week so my treadmill is at 15 minutes, but my goal is to work up to 30 minutes. I will eventually do some strength training, but right now my focus is on aerobic exercises. You wear a heart monitor the whole time, and they check your blood pressure several times before, during, and after. It’s pretty thorough. I also took a bunch of surveys the first day, which will be repeated for comparison purposes at the end. It’s a twelve week program, so I will have to work something out at work once I return.
Another aspect, both before and after surgery, is the incentive spirometer. This is a device intended to stretch and exercise your lungs. Prior use was recommended by my surgeon, it is not ‘normal’. The purpose for after surgery is that your lungs are negatively affected during surgery… “got lazy” is how one person explained it to me… and this contraption helps expand the lungs back into shape so they can be fully usable again. This is a big deal, but I have struggled with it. I can do it a few times then I start gagging, and I think the whole thing is mental. You’re supposed to do this 10+ times an hour, every hour that you’re awake.
I was also given a set of four arm exercises, stretching type exercises. These help stretch your body and muscles in your arms and upper chest back into shape, and it’s surprising how ‘closed in’, almost protective, your upper body becomes. You are expected to do these 3 to 4 times a day. For me it helped when I combined them with my walks, while in the hospital. They’re easy in a ‘hurts so good’ way. You do not have to do these anymore once you start the official rehabilitation.
Doctors and medical people can tell you all about the physical recovery. They can’t tell you much at all regarding what to expect emotionally and mentally. Oh, they can give vague and generic suggestions, but not first-hand experience.
I’ve been fortunate, I’ve been very straight forward throughout this whole experience. I’ve openly lifted my shirt and showed people my chest scar in public several times. I’ve been very open about it, almost absurdly. I haven’t really felt down or depressed, and I think things like this blog have contributed to my acceptance.
As I said in a previous post, while you are off work you’re going to have a lot of “extra” time on your hands. First and foremost you need to rest and rehabilitate, but what about you mind and emotional state? Be sure to keep your mind occupied. Do some easy projects around the house. You get a positive sense of accomplishment. Read and/or study some topics that interest you, but you wouldn’t normally have time for. Don’t be a couch potato mindlessly watching television every waking hour, but when you do watch tv include some mentally stimulating programs that will make you think and keep your mind occupied.
You will gain strength both physically and emotionally the farther you get from your surgery. Take advantage of it.
I’d been told by the surgeon and various doctors that I’d be out of work for around six to eight weeks, so up to two months. Approximately. Most likely. So, what to do with all that spare time? I mean, I work 40+ hours per week, normally. I have a schedule. I get up at a certain time, yada yada yada. This was going to be thrown all out-of-whack.
In ICU right after the surgery wasn’t an issue. Unless I was visiting with someone, or being poked and prodded by a nurse, I was sleeping. Once we got into the regular room in the hospital the first couple days still involved a lot of sleeping, though with each day not as much. I was also on somewhat of a regular schedule, sleep at night, up during the day, and so on. My last couple days I was up more, and a little more restless.
Then I went home.
Prior to surgery I had all these grand plans for what I would accomplish during my time off. I was going to clean my office, I was going to work on my blogs (I have four blogs now), and I was going to process more photos. In the 19 or so days I’ve been home I have accomplished little of that.
My sleep schedule has been upended. I’m naturally a night person. If I could have my way, and I did this when I was self-employed doing contract work, I’d work all night and sleep all day. I am pretty much back to doing that. As I write this it is 4:30 am. I went to bed at 2:00, couldn’t sleep for an hour, so I got back up and have been watching tv and pounding on the keyboard doing this and sending emails. Between 4:00 and 6:00 has become my normal bedtime, though, and it’s starting to catch up to me.
I have accomplished some things. My blogs have been addressed, though not as up-to-date as I’d like. I cleaned off my desk and a table in my office, but the rest still has to be done. Not a single photo has been processed. I started driving again less than a week after getting home, so that was good, and it’s allowed me to take myself to several follow-up medical appointments. I’ve also started post-surgery cardio physical rehab, which is three times a week.
So it’s not like there’s nothing to do, but the maintenance you need to do is only a small fraction of what you are used to doing. If you find yourself either with an upcoming heart surgery, or a just completed surgery, you might want to give some forethought as to what you will do with your “extra” time. Keeping in mind, of course, that you will need to ease into it. Your body will be stiff and sore, which will limit what you can do. Also know that you will tire quickly and easily, which will bring on some unscheduled naps, which are very welcome when you can get them. As you progress in your recovery your stamina will increase accordingly. I will probably revisit this topic in a few weeks or a month and compare how things have changed.
Have something in mind to do, set a goal or two, but don’t worry if it doesn’t all get done as quickly as it normally would. Things aren’t normal right now, so roll with it.