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I have a feeling I”m going to have to explain my title to some of you younger folk, but when I thought of it this morning, I laughed out loud. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is the title of a best-selling book about the plight of the Native American, that was written in 1970. To give you a little bit deeper of a reference, according to Wikipedia, “Wounded Knee, (a village on a reservation in South Dakota) was the location of last major confrontation between the U.S. Army and American Indians. Known formally as The Battle of Wounded Knee, where more than 150, largely unarmed, Sioux men, women, and children were massacred.”)
But all my titles lately have referred to the heart, since I have been recounting the story of my dear husband, The Big Bison’s heart attack and bypass surgery. When last I left you, Dr. Heart Surgeon and nurse Carmelita had informed me that my guy made it through surgery just swimmingly. Good news!!! I know we all love a happy ending, and it would be nice to tell you that he woke up all fixed and better, end of story. But that’s really not the way that real life rolls, is it? So, in the interests of full disclosure, and just in case some of you have to face a similar situation someday, I thought it might be helpful to offer up a few more details.
See, before the surgery, he’d been tired, and of course he’d had some pain during the heart attack itself, but other than that, he was feeling pretty normal. The “wounded heart” reference came about because in order for my husband’s heart to function properly, as it needed to, he needed new plumbing: his pipes were clogged. And re-routing plumbing inside your chest hurts like the dickens. And that is putting it oh, so mildly. My husband says it feels like having a gigantic mule kick you in the chest. So, before he could be “well”, they had to seriously and gravely wound him, first. (Spreading ribs, cutting flesh and muscle and cutting and cauterizing blood vessels rates as “wounding”, in my book.)
The first 24 hours following surgery, he was kept in an area called The Critical Care Unit, where he received lots of focused attention. Even though his condition was most critical during that time, in some ways, it was easier on me when he was in CCU than later on in his recovery, because during his time there, his health was so much more completely out of my hands. The family wasn’t allowed to stay the night. In fact, visits were limited to 15 and sometimes 30 minutes in length, 4 times a day. On the first visit to see him, the hospital prepares you that your loved one will look like Death On a Platter: he’ll be hooked up to breathing tubes, and lines, and drainage tubes, and there will be machines everywhere. Now all that was true, but, honestly, his color looked better even on the first visit than it had before the surgery. I’m guessing that had something to do with more than one drop of blood at a time being able to squeeze through his newly routed Lateral Anterior Descending artery.
One thing I learned pretty early in his hospitalization was how important it is to be kind to the nurses. Now, don’t get me wrong: every bit of love I sent their way, I meant. But, let’s face it: a nurse can play a critical role in a patient’s hospital experience, and a nurse who likes you is a whole lot more likely to help you or go the extra mile for you when special needs arise. Being cooperative and kind to your nurse is just like being kind to a server in a restaurant. Only an idiot is rude to their server in a restaurant. Servers can spit in your food, or sabotage your meal in any number of ways. A nurse’s job is to attend to the patient’s physical needs, but you can make their job a pleasure or a pain. So, why not help them have a nice day? Besides, you may really need their help at some other point in your day.
The nurses in CCU were awesome. I think it takes a special kind of personality and skill to be able to tolerate working with individuals who are in that much pain, but I guess they receive training that allows them to recognize the different level of “normal” that follows surgery, and then their goal becomes helping the patient progress along that continuum to get to the place where their level of care can be downgraded. Honestly, I don’t know how they do it. They care for people who are in a tremendous amount of pain and suffering, but seem unruffled by it, and even find a way to be positive and encouraging to family members. I found it remarkable.
Pain management plays a vital role in a patient’s recovery, and the challenge following surgery is to not let the patient’s pain get too far ahead of them, while at the same time, not over-medicating. It’s a fine, tricky line to walk. And a couple of times, we DID let the pain get rolling too strong, and then it’s harder to get it back under control. Those were scary, difficult moments. He literally was barely breathing, because it hurt so badly to move his chest to breathe. When pain is well-managed, recovery time is lessened, so there are even more reasons to attend to this carefully than the patient’s comfort level.
On my first visit to the Critical Care Unit, the BB knew me, and squeezed my hand, even though he couldn’t speak because the breathing tube was still in. On the second visit, a few hours later, they had him off the ventilator, and sitting up in a chair. Amazing! That was when he looked at me and said, “I’m plenty man, Baby”. On the third visit, he was clutching his pillow: his coughing pillow, for splinting his recently unhinged rib cage together, while he did the very necessary work of coughing. What could hurt more after a surgery where they spread your ribs and cut your chest muscles than coughing? I don’t know. And yet, it was the very thing that it was critical for him to do, because there was phlegm that had to be loosened up. If not, there was a serious possibility of him developing pneumonia. He was to work several times an hour on coughing, and blowing into a spirometer, which measures your the strength of the force with which you can exhale (while doubling as an instrument of torture, for someone who’s just had their chest opened up). Extremely painful, but absolutely, critically necessary.
Before he was ready to be released from the critical care unit, they had to remove a lot of stuff from his chest that he was hooked up to. I thought, for curiosity’s sake, you might enjoy getting a gander at all the stuff they removed from and took off my husband’s chest. I believe somewhere amidst all that is something called a pulmonary artery catheter.
|Isn’t this kind of horrifying?|
Within 24 hours, he was moved to the regular cardiac unit telemetry floor, where he wore the gadget that was attached to all probes on his chest. There, I would have been allowed to spend the night, but elected not to, in order to be home with the kids. That was, for me, the hardest part of the experience up to that point. He was in tremendous pain, and it was up to me to keep an eye on things. We discovered after he got in the room that he had broken out into a horrible rash all over his torso and tail. To this day, we’re still not sure if it was an allergic reaction to one of his medications, or a topical reaction to the laundry detergent used on the gowns and bed linens there at the hospital. But it was an angry, itchy rash, and it worried me a great deal. Poor guy looked like Job.
So…back to my title: what’s the “Bury My Knee” part? Well, if ever I needed to bend my knee down to the ground in my life, to keep it metaphorically planted in prayer-position, (kind of like burying it under me), it’s been during this last month of my life. Without God renewing my spirit through prayer through His Holy Spirit, without the gift of being able to watch skilled medical personnel treat my Bison, without the listening ears of friends who let me pour out my exhaustion and fear in my hardest, darkest moments, I don’t know how I would have made it.