Open-heart surgery and facing your mortality at 34 – Triona’s story

By Triona Keane Heart News   |   28th Feb 2022

Triona Keane writes movingly about her experience of undergoing open-heart surgery last year,  and how the love of friends, family, and her fiancé got her through.

As someone with congenital heart issues since childhood, even I was caught by surprise when the call came to inform me that open heart surgery was imminent.

Doctors had discovered a large aneurysm that was at high risk of rupturing. They proposed to give me a new heart valve as well, all in one operation. A two-for-one deal if ever I heard one.

My head swirling, I put down the phone and tried to digest the information. I was 34 years of age and facing major surgery which had a 5 per cent mortality rate. How does anyone make sense of that?

Desperate to pull my head out of the clouds, I telephoned my mother. Breaking the news to the one person who has been my constant companion and champion was heart-breaking. I was all too aware of the worry this would cause her. The guilt of burdening her even further with this news was gnawing at me but, as always, her soothing words soon placated any guilt I felt. What ensued was a highly charged emotional call; one that marks a truly unique connection between mother and daughter. A very special moment that I feel so fortunate to have shared.

Telling my partner was easy by comparison. In typical male fashion, he didn’t see the point of procrastination if this surgery was an inevitability, which it was,  he believed that having it while I was young, fit, and healthy, offered me the best chance of optimum recovery and the present was as good a time as any.

Up until that point, I had been living as normal a life as possible amid the doom of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many people, working from home had become my new normal, and the obligatory wearing of masks seemed to permeate the landscape creating an apocalyptic sea of colour.

We were in the most crucial phase of a horrible pandemic and I needed major surgery. If I caught COVID-19, that could be a death sentence. Now was not an ideal time for medical vulnerability. Before I ever considered just how major this surgery was, I was dealing with a pandemic on top of it. But then I had to ask myself when was the right time?

I was 34 years of age and facing major surgery which had a 5 per cent mortality rate. How does anyone make sense of that?

.

Assessing my priorities was the only way forward; the most useful tool was to focus the mind, examine what was important, and break everything down. I had the most wonderful fiancé, the most beloved friends, and family, and some incredible memories. I was beset with a deep faith that gave me much comfort throughout this difficult time. Blessing me with a strength I didn’t feel, I found solace and somehow the courage to cope.

While my positivity never waned, I cannot pretend that fear did not raise its ugly head. As the surgery loomed closer, the enormity of what lay ahead became more apparent. And it wasn’t something I could run away from. Waiting for the inevitable was undoubtedly the most challenging. I remember sitting down to watch a film the week before surgery and thinking that this time next week I would be in ICU.

When I met with my surgical team the day before the operation and they explained the details of the procedure, all I heard were the words ‘heparin infusion’, ‘five hours in surgery’, ‘heart and lung machine’, ‘cannula insertion into the neck’ and ‘5 per cent mortality rate’. Another move along the reality trajectory.

Signing my life away on those dotted lines, there could be no going back. There was nowhere to hide. Messages of love and support were filtering through all day and as I fervently endeavoured to reply to each one, I think my walls began to crumble.

My mind was slowly processing what was happening. Speaking to my parents that evening was tough. Dark, yet not impractical thoughts, began to assail my mind. Thoughts like, was this the last time I would speak to them?

Like typical men, my brothers would never admit how concerned they were, not to me at least, but I knew they were worried and putting on a brave face. Candles were lit by aunts and uncles and in far-off distant places, I didn’t even know existed, like a Buddhist spot in the middle of County Cork. That was news to me.

A long phone call with my fiancé before bed tore my heartstrings to shreds. While trying to maintain my sense of calm and optimism, he was now telling me he was terrified. These were not the words I needed to hear the night before major surgery. Instead of him staying strong for me and being the one to console me, the reverse was happening.

I was scared, I was terrified, carried on the fear that I would be taken before my time. I had teetered dangerously on the precipice before. How many chances did one get?

I was scared, I was terrified, carried on the fear that I would be taken before my time.

.

Everything seemed to overwhelm me. Suddenly I feared I was on borrowed time. I was only 34; I was far from ready to dig my own grave. I had too much living to do. On some level, I had to accept there was the very real possibility of death. Finding solace and comfort in my young life was bittersweet. I was so grateful for the life I had lived and everyone in it yet the selfish part of me yearned for more.

In my vulnerable state, my brain forced me to confront with gratitude all the positives like friends and family who coloured my life in many different ways. Several happy memories and special moments with loved ones flashed before my eyes bringing a smile to my face. I wanted to stay in the moment forever and keep reliving these precious memories. I wanted the moment of surgery never to dawn but of course, that was unrealistic.

Despite a fitful night’s sleep, I woke surprisingly calm on the morning of the surgery. Emboldened by a state of grace and a determined resolve, I was ready by first light.

The theatre nurse quickly put me at ease, she must have placed half a trolley of stickers on my back as she engaged me in conversation. The last sticker had barely grazed my back when the anaesthetist called for me and cracked a few jokes. More cannula insertions, more gateways to the body. This was it. Surrendering life and limb to the surgical team, I offered up a silent prayer. My fate hung in the balance of the surgeons’ capabilities; it was over to them now. I remember nothing else until I woke up in intensive care.

Being the drama queen, I am apparently, I decided to give everyone a scare or the surgeons something to do, take your pick. Under sedation, I somehow managed to remove a stitch (don’t ask) which caused some internal bleeding and I had to be rushed back to theatre. When I learned this after waking up, I advised my poor surgeon that I wasn’t happy unless I was causing trouble. My poor family and fiancé. Their barometer of emotions must have been all over the place. First, they were advised the surgery had gone exceptionally well, next thing they know I’m being rushed to theatre. And I lay in blissful oblivion to it all.

My initial recovery accelerated at a fantastic pace. Young and fit, I rapidly bounced back. Then the complications came. Crippled by dizzy spells and emerging high markers of infection, I developed a fever and my recovery began to plateau, if not deteriorate.

Baffling the doctors, I was catapulted off for a chest x-ray and an echo which revealed a large volume of fluid around my heart. They believed I had suffered a case of Dressler’s syndrome, an immune response to surgery. I was marched down to the Cardiac Day Ward the following day where I underwent a procedure to drain the fluid.

To all my friends who rallied around me, you know who you are. Thank you.

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While I endured a rough day following the procedure, I began to improve almost instantaneously. My energy gradually improved and I felt stronger, activities of daily living no longer fazed me. By the time I was discharged from hospital I had almost returned to full strength. A decent night’s sleep without early morning weight and ECG checks, the ultimate enemy of the cardiac ward, was the only recipe I needed.

As my recovery continues to accelerate and I reflect on the emotional roller-coaster of the last few months, it seems so unbelievably surreal what I have been through.

Embarking on a brisk walk, it is hard to believe that only a few short months ago I had major heart surgery, my scar the only real reminder. Young, fit and healthy though I might be, I feel utterly privileged to have come through the other side.

They say you witness the best of humanity when you experience an event such as this and I certainly did.

To all my friends who rallied around me, you know who you are. Thank you.

Another critical source of support came from a friend who had previously undergone the same surgery and explained the entire procedure from pre-op to recovery. It was an enormous relief to gain such a valuable insight into what lay ahead and it put my mind at ease. As someone averse to change knowing what to expect is everything and doctors only tell you so much.

The toughest role of all fell to my family and those closest to me. Long hours waiting by the phone for news coupled with the fact that they could not be with me when I emerged from theatre must have been horrific. A phone call from the surgeon had to suffice. It must have been devastating not to be able to play any part in my immediate recovery, save for sharing a face over video chat.

To my incredible fiancé my best friend, thank you for putting up with me. My absolute rock, you are my shining light in the dark. This phase of my life would have been much more difficult without you. From the very beginning, you have consistently been there for me.

There’s nobody in this world who understands me as you do. Sharing life’s ups and downs with you is the beacon of my existence. Thank you for standing by me in sickness and in health. This is my sickness, get ready for my health.

And to all those who never made it, I want to dedicate this memoir to you.

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congenital heart disease heart disease hospital open heart surgery surgery

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