Lessons learned: recovering from open heart surgery

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After having five open heart surgeries between the ages of 13 and 41, Peter Gallagher knows a thing or two about recovery. He shares his insight and experiences about life, post-surgery.

Let’s face it: open heart surgery is a major trauma for your body and it needs time to recover.

The medical fraternity tends to focus on your physical recovery, using what I call the “lifting heavy things” method. That’s important and necessary but there are other aspects to recovery and, over five different heart surgeries and 28 years, I’ve gained a few insights.  

Physical recovery

When you wake from surgery, the doctors and nurses will quickly try to get you moving because the faster you do that, the faster you’ll recover. The focus will be on getting you to walk. Pretty much every movement will hurt, including sitting up or walking but especially sneezing, coughing or laughing.

You simply have to power through and keep walking – and ask for pain relief if you need it. You will recover faster if your pain is reduced. Some people get scared of taking too much pain medication but remember you are being monitored by your cardiac team.

And then – just keep walking. If you are asked to walk one lap of the ward, try to do a little bit more. Be proud of getting around the hospital ward.

It’s all about balance

With most heart surgeries these days, people are out of hospital quickly and it’s easy to fall in a heap at home. If you can, have someone with you but try not to let them nurse you all the time. It is best to try and return to your normal routine and,   if you work on the balance between movement, rest and sleep, you’ll be surprised by your progress.

Emotional recovery

Sometimes the emotional side of recovery can be difficult to deal with because it is so personal. But the other wonderful parts of life that make us human also need to address.

You might struggle with a range of emotions, particularly if your heart-health problem appeared suddenly. Whatever your challenges, talking with other people, including your GP if they persist,  can help.

Oh, and if your partner tells you that you’re being grumpy, try not to bite their head off. You probably are, which is fair enough considering the roller-coaster of emotions that you may be riding.

A new normal

Post-surgery, the main goal is to return to life as it was before. This is achievable for most people, although there may be a “new” normal: a tweak in how you used to do things. You’ll eventually be able to walk long distances again, you’ll return to work, you’ll go to the gym, and they’ll let you drive your car again. It’s just adapting to your “new normal” and trying not to put too much pressure on yourself. Take the time you need to recover: everyone’s recovery is different.

Let’s talk about sex, baby

Tell your partner they won’t break you if they hold you or hug you. Intimacy can be overwhelming for both of you during recovery. You’re dealing with many emotions and, early in recovery, some physical limitations. But, yes, when you feel ready, you can have sex again.

Your health professional in the hospital may say: “If you can walk up two flights of stairs you can have sex.”  But you and your partner need to be ready to be intimate again. Talk it through and share your concerns with each other.

Words of wisdom

Don’t beat yourself up if your recovery is a bit slower than planned.  Each recovery is different.

Your estimate of what is a “100%” return to your old life might change a little. But mostly, life will return to that “new normal”. And you just might bounce back, bigger, stronger, louder, happier and healthier than before.

Be kind to yourself.

This blog is Peter’s experience of recovering from his heart surgery. This does not replace seeing a health professional and seeking medical advice. For free, personalised heart health advice give our Heart Foundation Helpline a call on 13 11 12.

Learn more about adjusting to life after a heart event.

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