How to survive open heart surgery (while sitting in the waiting room).

My husband’s family history of heart disease reads like a funeral requiem: his father had a heart attack at age 35; his mother, multiple cardiac surgeries; his brother, two stents by age 40; his uncle and cousin both died of heart attacks by 55. And so on and so forth throughout the branches and leaves of his family tree. Only Rich had escaped the cardiac firing line. But one afternoon this February, I finally heard the words I’d been dreading in our eleven years of marriage: Honey, take me to the emergency room.

Rich’s first EKG was normal. So was his second one. Still, the doctors wanted to give him a more conclusive test, just in case. Worst case scenario, he’d get a relatively minor procedure to open an artery. Rich blew me kisses as the nurses wheeled him away to his test.

Rich and I had recently moved back to my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. If I’d ever regretted trading fabulous LA for a life with my family nearby, this moment put any doubts to rest. My father sat with me at the hospital, holding my hand, awaiting the results of the test.

As we waited, a doctor walked over and greeted my father warmly. Dad is retired surgeon, and for 30 years he practiced in the same hospital where we now sat in the waiting room. As my father introduced me to Dr. Still, he explained that they’d operated together years ago and that tonight Dr. Still was on call for cardiac emergencies. My dad quipped, Great to see you hope we don’t see you later in surgery! We all smiled.

But a few minutes later, Dr. Still returned with a very different look on his face. We would be seeing him later for surgery.

My father asked the question I could not: How bad is it? The surgeon blinked a millisecond too long for my comfort and replied, All five. I had no idea what that meant. All five? Five what? I looked from one man to the other, trying to interpret their expressions to figure out if that was good or bad.

Well, yeah, that’s bad. The worst. His heart was shutting down and they needed replacements on all five arteries in the next 12 hours. Trying to understand what was happening, I stammered, Is this like a bypass? My dad said gently, Rich is getting a quintuple bypass. Not double, not triple. Quintuple. My first thought was of our two small children, Quinton and Azalea, at home asleep. Then I wondered if we’d paid his life insurance premium.

I immediately peppered my dad with questions What were Rich’s chances of survival? What would his life be like after the surgery? Would he be an invalid? Would he be the same person? My father answered every question academically, until at one point he stared down at his shoes and broke down into tears.

Not me. I refused to go to the bad place. At least, not yet. I play a little game when bad things happen: I ask myself, How can I turn this into the best thing that could possibly happen? I’ve played this game during all kinds of cloudy situations, and found that sometimes, silver linings can stretch across the horizon.

It was getting late, but I called our best friends, Chris and Rona, to join me at Rich’s bedside to celebrate. Together we laughed and told stories, giving his old heart a going-away party. Rich was all doped up on truth serum-like drugs, so we asked personal questions and giggling until the night nurse shooed us out.

I drove home by myself, and this fact struck me as totally bizarre. It was a sort of evil-twin opposite of the last time I’d left a hospital: after having a baby. When having a baby, Rich and I drove to the hospital as two, and left as three. Today we drove as two, and I left by myself.

Seeing the kids asleep at home was the hardest part. I kissed them each twice: once for me, once for Rich.

A few hours later, before sunrise the next morning, Rich’s operation began. Sitting in the waiting room, I realized I had no idea what exactly was going on in the surgery being performed in real time on the other side of the wall. I Googled quintuple bypass. This is insane, I thought: I’ve researched car seats and blenders more extensively than the consent forms to have my husband’s ribcage cracked open, his heart pulled out from his chest, and the five lifelines of his body cut and replaced.

At last, many hours later, Dr. Still came out from surgery. He smiled. I burst into tears.

The novelist Anna Quindlen once wrote, Think of life as a terminal illness, because if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived. Rich had a terminal illness, heart disease, ticking down towards detonation. We feared it. It was the worst that could happen, and it happened.

But really, it was the best thing that could have possibly happened.

The man I’m married to today is very different than the one who went into surgery. He’s stronger, healthier, and more alive than ever. He is, quite literally, a new man. His skin is brighter, his laugh is bubblier, and his eyes sparklier. Unbeknownst to us, for several years, his heart had been deprived of blood and that showed up in his behavior and activity level.

This blog post is far more personal than my others, I realize. I share this story because it’s a parallel to all the other things I write about… surviving a chaotic situation, consciously creating a new point of view, andchanging your life (by choice or otherwise).

We all walk around with a few worst fears. Some are logical, others, entirely unfounded. But sometimes, the (supposedly) worst thing that could happen turns out to be the absolute best. Sometimes, we have to go through what we dread in order to live our best life. That mean be getting fired, or losing a cherished relationship, or not getting something you passionately hoped and prayed for.

When you don’t have control over a certain situation or result, focus on the pieces within your grasp. If you’re laid off from a job, you can’t necessarily get that same job back, but what can you do? What knowledge or experiences or relationships will you take and use to your advantage?What opportunities could arise from getting laid off, which might not have been possible before? What actions can you take that will use this layoff as a stepping stone to your next success?

In my book, I wrote about experiencing the most scary, and difficult, and painful moments in life. These words, which I wrote in 2005, I now believe more profoundly than ever:

The scary and difficult and painful don’t have to stop you. The scary and difficult and painful are the very things that transform you into your best self.

One last thought. Is it just me, or is it news that the heart has five arteries? Who knew??

In Mexico, three months after surgery.

22 Responses to “How to survive open heart surgery (while sitting in the waiting room).”

  1. Kevin Amter Says:

    Sally,

    I met Rich at a small party in your LA house many years ago. I’m glad you shared this and happier to hear of the out come.

    I think you are absolutely correct. It does transform us.

    Best to you both.

    KA

  2. Shane Adams Says:

    Thank you so much for sharing such a personal story with the world. You are an amazing writer and communicator and it was a story definitely worth telling.

  3. Sally Hogshead Says:

    Kevin and Shane, thank you both. Incredibly sweet of you both to be so generous with your thoughts. xxoo

  4. Scott Makar Says:

    I can attest to Rich’s stronger, healthier, more vibrant lifestyle … a month ago I saw him (a) swinging upside-down (multiple times) from a trapeze at Club Med in Ixtapa, Mexico, (b) hitting golf balls farther and straighter than ever (he even ventured fearlesslyinto forbiden crocodile territory on the golf course!), and (3) frolicking like a teenager in the Pacific Ocean. And that’s what went on in public! Perhaps most importantly, we’ve all seen that his true heart, his soul, is even bigger and more loving than we imagined, which is saying a lot because Rich was already about the most loving, adoring and caring husband/father/son-in-law/brother-in-law one could imagine. Love to you both, Sally and Rich … and Quinton and Azalea too!!! Uncle Scott

  5. Derek Mehraban Says:

    Sally, thanks for sharing this story. I’m glad it all worked out. Sometimes we are given all we can handle. And it’s amazing what happens when you make it to the other side. Your story is very inspiring. And I hope all is well in Jacksonville.

    Happy Summer.

  6. Sam Harrison Says:

    Sally,

    You told this story as only you could — with candor and grace, humor and humanity. I’m glad you shared it and grateful I read it. And I’m so happy to hear Rich is doing so well — you deserve the best! Warmly, Sam

  7. David Burn Says:

    Wow. I knew you were a brave woman, but not this brave. I’m so glad your husband is doing well and that you were in the right place to help him get well.

  8. David Bierman Says:

    I’m sitting in a dark room fretting over a TV spot. Thanks for putting everything in stark perspective for me.
    All my best wishes to your family and your hubby’s continued recovery!

  9. Dan Ward Says:

    Wow, what a story – and I’m so glad to hear it turned out well.

    And yeah, I am also amazed to discover the heart has 5 arteries. I always thought it was just 4…

  10. Sally Hogshead Says:

    Rich and I are so touched by all your comments and notes. Thank you, so much, everyone.

    I just posted a photo, taken in Mexico on a family vacation in June, three months after surgery.

    xxoo
    Sally

  11. laura sweet Says:

    Sally,
    I know what it’s like to have to be witty, entertaining and positive when writing for a public forum. And by the same token, I know how hard it is to be candid, personal and serious.

    Thanks for sharing and know that I send my strength and best wishes to you and Rich for a long, healthy and happy future. By the looks of the Mexico photo, in which both of you are glowing, it looks like you’re on your way.

    Sincerely,
    laura

  12. Jon Says:

    Sally, you really peeled back another layer with that post. It makes me realize that we need to be brave in order to be happy in this world. Which come to think of it, has been your message all along. Your kids are apparently blessed to have two very brave parents as role models.

    I always used to complain about the monthly cost of health insurance here in Massachusetts until my oldest son Tyler needed to have reconstructive facial surgery after an accident. When I saw the team of amazing professionals that put his face back together, I felt like I had gotten the best bargain ever.

    Best wishes to you and Rich, who must have set a new record with that quintuple bypass. It’s like getting a new set of wheels, and a spare.

    Motor on!

    Jon

  13. Talia Ledner Says:

    Sally,

    Thanks so much for your warm reply — glad to hear your husband is recovering rapidly.

    Best,
    Talia

  14. Bob Says:

    So, SO glad to hear all is well, Sally.

    BTW, I’m currently working at an agency that specializes in medical devices, including all things heart-related. Have several prototypes on my shelf right now, so if Rich ever needs one, just let me know. :)

    (Thanks for the post, BTW. You’re the best, in case you don’t know.)

  15. Mike Weidner Says:

    So good to know your husband is okay, Sally. And it was great chatting with you last night.

    Go Jags! You guys should go to a game – you’ll love it!

  16. Corinne Says:

    Dear Sally,

    Troy and I recently had a catastrophic experience that changed both of us for the better. Our marriage will never be the same, and as good as it was, it is now even better.

    Thank you for the perspective,

    Corinne

  17. Susan Says:

    so who cares about computers crashing?! This puts everything in perspective…you’re an inspiration!

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