Seeing my husband in the cardiac ICU unit was a very difficult thing. He looked so vulnerable, a state in which I was not used to seeing him. As we walked in to his cubicle for the first time, I spoke to him gently, telling him everything was going to be ok. He was frantically moving his hand to get it out from under the cover and pointing to his neck area where the breathing tube was still in place. The effects of the anesthesia were still evident. It was hard to watch. We left pretty quickly as the nurse reminded us that it would not be good for him to get too excited. She said patients sometimes try to talk or to pull the breathing tube out.
The next time I saw him in ICU, the tube was out. As I approached his bed, he whispered to me that his chest hurt and his throat was sore. I must say, I felt helpless to comfort him. I was confident however, that he was getting great care in the ICU. He was getting 24 hour one-on-one care, his vitals were being closely monitored and his pain managed. The day after the surgery, they moved him out of ICU and into a regular room on the cardiac floor. At that point, I brought my little suitcase and moved right in.
Even though he was in a regular room now, he still had chest tubes in to drain fluid that had accumulated during surgery. He wouldn’t be allowed to move around or walk until those were removed. Before surgery, my husband had been introduced to the dreaded “spirometer”, a device used to help re-inflate the lungs and prevent pneumonia after surgery. He had to blow into the device and watch the ball rise up the tube that was divided into numerical increments. His lung capacity was measured and marked before surgery and the idea was for him to work his way back up to that point as he recovered. This proved to be a difficult and painful task in those first few days after surgery. The chest tube had not yet been removed and was making it very difficult to suck in air efficiently thus moving the ball up the spirometer. The hospital staff, including nurses, doctors, and respiratory therapists continually stressed the importance of this therapy. The protocol called for working with it once every hour for 10 repetitions.
In those first few days after surgery, it was a delicate dance of doses and scheduling as the nurses attempted to manage my husband’s pain. He had just had his sternum sawed in two, his chest muscles torn apart, his nerves severed, and his heart manipulated and we knew this would not be an easy task.
My husband says that those first few days after surgery were the toughest days he has ever had to endure, hands down. The nurses encouraged him to sleep in the reclining chair rather than the bed, which he did, but it was still impossible to sleep. When the pain meds wore off it was almost unbearable for him. Eventually the chest tubes were removed which was a very intense and uncomfortable process but, did allow him to progress more quickly with his breathing therapy.
After a day or two my husband began to walk the halls of the cardiac wing, with a lovely pink walker provided by the hospital. (No I could not resist taking a photo!) It was very tiring for him at first, of course, but every day he could go a little further. He blew diligently into the dreaded spirometer and saw it as a challenge to reach his pre-op lung capacity. His competitive nature served him well!
On the 4th day after his surgery, as we were preparing to go home, we found out that my husband’s platelet count was a little low and also that there seemed to be something not quite right on the left side of his lung. That turned out to be a small pneumothorax, or hole in the lung, which we were told would heal spontaneously. Fortunately, by the next day the platelets were back up and we were discharged to go home. We were so happy. (Apparently, the heart-lung machine through which one’s blood passes during open heart surgery tends to chew up the platelets and it takes a while for them to build back up.)
The great thing about being home would be the rest and emotional healing that we knew would take place there. Everything had happened so fast, we needed time to decompress and think about what had transpired. Home would prove to be a wonderful place in which to do that!