A Journey Through Open Heart Surgery

By Dennis Kalichuk 

It was the first day of spring.  The air was crisp and clean and felt like hope and renewal.  The street I was delivering mail on was in a beautiful old district of the city.  The dingy gardens looked forward to their approaching rebirth.

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Dennis Kalichuk ART

But the real road I suspected I was now travelling on wasn’t as pretty, and was fraught with dangerous twists and unknowns.  I already had fought tears of frustration during the weekend’s bicycle ride to the beach and back with my girlfriend Becky.  The episodes of tightness in my chest during the hard sections were not something I was accustomed to during my many years of being an endurance athlete.  Given my family history of heart disease I was quite sure I knew what they meant.  I was able to get in to see my family Doctor right away and was now waiting on an appointment date for a stress test.  I wouldn’t make it that long.

I sat down on the top step of the porch I just delivered to.  There was no sense of panic.  I tried to breathe deep and slow to calm everything down, and enjoyed the cloud filtered sun on my face as I waited to feel better, and for the aching in my chest and neck to subside.  After a couple of text messages I was told an ambulance was on the way.  Obviously still in a bit of denial, or possibly trying to ignore the issue away, I got up and delivered mail until transport arrived.  The ambulance crew called me while they were en route and I told them not to use their siren!

The paramedics were pleasant and efficient while we talked and joked and they attached chest leads for an EKG before we left for the hospital.  Emergency attendants at the hospital were equally competent and a blood enzyme test revealed that although there was likely no real damage to my heart, there was definitely cause for concern, and I needed to be admitted.  I thought about how arriving at emerg with chest issues is certainly a way to bypass any wait times!

“You’re a lucky man.”  Those were the first words spoken to me by the confident looking and sounding man who turned out to be my surgeon.  I had now been transferred to the big city hospital that specialized in heart surgery.  He had dropped into my room to discuss my angiogram findings.  The main artery to my heart was almost completely blocked and another partially.  He could fix me and my heart with double bypass surgery.  Of course there are always the odds and percentages and the list of things that could go wrong you need to hear about before giving the okay.  Later a caring and thorough Nurse Practitioner calculated my operation survival odds, given my otherwise healthy and fit condition, to be 99%.  I wondered to myself if the surgeon had coincidentally just completed 99 successful bypasses in a row.

I joked with the hard working young woman that was drawing blood from my arm, that I thought one needed to be older than fifteen to be a nurse.  She was of course, a twenty something, but I was surprised that so many of the talented personnel looked so incredibly young to me!  I’m quite sure this has as much to do with my age and perception as it did their age.  And almost without exception, all I encountered were proficient, and compassionate and gentle in their dealings with patients with serious and delicate health situations.  I did say “almost” however, as there was the one I’m sure, well meaning nurse, who pointed at me in the angiogram recovery ward and shouted, “surgery for you”!  At that point I hadn’t yet been informed of the results by the doctors, and I saw her being pulled aside and being “talked to”.  Coincidently she’s the same one who was unable to successfully insert an IV into me and after a few awkward and painful attempts called for the IV expert.  I actually found both those events to be a lot more funny than annoying – nobody’s perfect.

I had read about some of the possible emotions that patients going through this type of procedure could encounter.  I was thankful that at no point yet did I become depressed, or angry, or wonder sorrowfully “why me?”  It did bother me quite a bit however, that my situation was causing so much grief to the people close to me.  And I did not like being what I saw as a bother and inconvenience to everyone’s daily life.  I appreciated, and even needed, the visits from the people close to me but felt guilty about it.  I also worried about my fourteen year old boy who suddenly found it difficult to sleep.

The big day – open heart surgery day – had arrived.  I was nervous.  I was frightened.  I did my best to remain calm and focused, polite and patient.  I wanted anything I did or said to contribute in a positive way.  I worried about Becky and family and friends that were worried about me.  Saying goodbyes before heading down the cold hall into the operating arena, was a tough moment.  Try as I might I couldn’t dispel the nagging little thought that wondered if that was a last goodbye.

I lay on the operating table and listened to some final questions and instructions from an assistant surgeon and the anaesthesiologist.  An instant passed.  “Dennis”, whispered a kind voice, “you’re in the recovery room, you’re all done”.  Much of that night is foggy but soon I was aware of Becky and friend Brian beside me.  I worked on trying to breathe steady on my own so I could have that darn tube in my throat removed.  Apparently I have a slight phobia about that type of thing.  A couple of hours later I developed what the nurse was describing as pericarditis.  Unfortunately it’s painful and mimics what feels like a heart attack.  Lily took a shot at using a different pain med that had been known to be effective against it.  It worked, and deservedly so, she seemed quite pleased.  I nicknamed her “Lily Angel” as she was in all whites, and she laughed at that and told me her husband’s nickname for her is “Ancient Evil”.  Humour is always a good thing.

It was a sleepless night in recovery but the morning found me sitting in a chair having breakfast.  A brief walk would follow.  My surgeon and entourage floated into the room.  He was dressed all dapper and looked the opposite of how I felt.  I gave a chipper “good morning”!  He came close while the folks with notepads stayed a step behind and told me everything was a success and I had done everything he hoped I would.  “Me?” I exclaimed!  “I’m pretty sure I didn’t do anything at all but thank you so much for what you did.  Thank you.”

I should note that I’ve always been a bit of a baby when it comes to even little things in the medical world like getting a needle.  I would get anxious when going for simple blood work.  A touch of trypanophobia.  Not proud of that at all.  It amazes me what the human mind and body is capable of when push comes to shove.  I’ve also noted that many of what would be the most traumatic parts of this whole experience, were somewhat difficult to recall for this retelling.  It’s somewhat like viewing them through a translucent veil.  I wondered aloud to one of the night nurses if it’s our mind’s way of protecting oneself.

It’s now day ten.  I’ve been walking, excercising, feeling great and trying to live as normally as possible without overdoing it as the days pass.  I know there are again, fun, active days ahead.  Days filled with love and laughs, bikes and kayaks, music and dancing, and walks and beaches.

Today the Toronto Blue Jays take flight for the season opener.  It feels like the real first day of spring.  It feels like rebirth.

5 weeks post op.  Working hard within the guidelines...  not ready for the mountain bike or kayak, but close!

5 weeks post op. Working hard within the guidelines… not ready for the mountain bike or kayak, but close!

5 YEAR UPDATE!

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So far so good!!   Happy to report I virtually feel like I did 20 years ago!  I’ve radically changed and improved my diet and have been able to stick to it no problem.  My stress tests; blood pressure; heart rate; blood work stats all fall in the optimum range. I’m able to excercise, cycle, kayak, hike etc. with no restrictions or limitations. 🙂 I’ve spent a number of vacations on a touring bicycle, have won outright a kayak race and made the podium in a duathlon.  Life is grand!

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bpmr podium 2017

5 thoughts on “A Journey Through Open Heart Surgery

  1. Awesome short story, with a Happy Ending…Thankyou so much Dennis for sharing… Just another day in the life of a Mailman. Artist/Musician and Boston Marathoner. Glad you are alive Enjoying Spring, Family, and the Jays!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dennis,that was a beautiful testimony to how even in the midst of a scary scenario,that you felt safe and trusted your doctors and yourself to get through this,its the journey and survivalist in you that makes us so humble,that you have more change in life,more springs,fresh air and a heightened sense of awareness of how much people and your passions mean to you…you have lived through something very traumatic, so very glad to hear you share your story with us…it helps and if you ever feel sorrow or depression,its normal and you have plenty of friends who would lend an ear! So hayou that you are on the mend my friend!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderfully written Dennis.Ruth and I never stop thinking about you and how you are doing.Everything,as it has been said,happens for a reason and if this had to happen,as it inevitably did,it seems the BIG Guy upstairs had your back all the way;from the ambulance attendants to the caring staff at the hospital in London.May your recovery time be short and sweet.And lay some more of that convalescing discourse on us anytime the urge grabs you!

    Liked by 1 person

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