I became aware of a shuffling around, movement and background noise. It felt like I was in the middle of a dream.
“Irene,” whispered a nurse.
My eyes fluttered open. Oh, yeah, now I remember. It’s over.
The day began for me at about 5:30am when I woke up a little earlier than I needed to, but who could blame me? This would be the day of my catheter ablation, the procedure that would hopefully end my episodes of atrial flutter. I’ve never had a “procedure” or surgery before so this was going to be a whole new experience.
My husband and I wearily drove to the hospital, which is only 10 minutes away from our house, parked the car and wandered in to admission.
Then we made our way up to the 3rd floor of the Diagnosis and Treatment Centre, CSS, or Cardiac Short Stay unit. There was a long row of chairs for patients and their family or friends to wait, and we appeared to be the first. Slowly more patients trickled in over the next hour and a half. Occasionally a nurse would come out of the ward and call a name. “Oh, you’re in the first wave, you’re lucky!” they would say to everyone else. Somehow I knew I wasn’t in the “first wave”. Oh well. What else did I have to do?
Eventually my name was called and I met my nurse, Crystal. She checked my height and weight (crap…why do they always have to weigh you?), and then led us over to my bed for the day. Bed number 9.
The ward had about 20 beds in all and they were filling up with people, mostly elderly males, I noted, all in various states of preparedness. A couple of them were being wheeled in an out of another area, which I eventually learned was the hallway leading to the operating rooms, and the electrophysiology lab, where I would have my procedure. The nurses were buzzing about, getting patients ready as my husband and I awkwardly sat down on bed number 9. Crystal the nurse came up and asked me some questions and not long after one of the surgeons came out to speak with me about a study that they are doing regarding atrial flutter, and would I be interested in being a part of the study? Sure, I said, and he left me with some papers to read.
Eventually it was time to get into my dressing gown. I was also provided with these odd little things to put on my feet. They were a little like cloth hospital caps, but for your feet. Bright blue. And darned if I could find the hole to put my foot in. All this hospital stuff was completely new for me.
My husband stayed a lot longer than the 15 minutes he was allotted, but they didn’t seem to mind. We chatted and every now and then could hear the shaver going. Yep, there goes another one, we’d say. They shave you. Eventually he was told it was time to leave, so we kissed goodbye and I was on my own.
I was hooked up to a heart monitor, given a little pill for potential reflux, had my blood pressure and temperature checked, and then an older nurse came in to put in an IV. I don’t have very prominent veins, so he had to muck around a bit to find something useful. Eventually he inserted the IV on the top of my hand, not the most comfortable place, but another nurse later said he did a great job. I was hooked up to a bag of saline solution on a portable unit that I could wheel around with me if I needed to use the washroom. And then I settled in and waited. And waited.
My nurse Crystal brought me magazines. But House and Home isn’t really my thing, and although Canadian Living was a little more interesting, it was filled with all of these delicious recipes, and I wasn’t allowed to eat. You know?
There were mostly two types of procedures going on that day — some were receiving heart stents which meant going through the veins in their wrists to insert the stents (I know, amazing, right?), and then some of us were having ablations, where they go up through the groin into the veins leading up into the heart chambers and freeze the cells that are causing the problem. That’s also amazing. As I said before in an earlier post about it, years ago you’d be diagnosed with a “heart condition” and left to live with it. Now they do these incredible but simple procedures that, in my case, have a 95% cure rate.
The patients receiving stents were wheeled in and then out of the operating rooms, their arm in a sling and a blanket around their shoulders. There were a lot of those. I was kind of looking forward to the wheel chair, mostly because I wanted to get this over with.
The patient who was having an ablation procedure just before me was scheduled to be finished by 11 or 11:30am, and my procedure would take about 2 to 2.5 hours. My husband had scheduled his return to around 3pm. As it turned out, they told me that there had been complications, so the patient before me was going to take a little longer. So I waited some more. I entertained myself by listening to the conversations going on around me. There was a retired doctor on one side of me, and an elderly lady on the other. I couldn’t see them, but I got to know a little about both of them by the conversations they were having with others.
Finally, at about 2pm, one of the cardiologists came and said they were getting ready for me. I asked if I was going to get to go in one of those chairs and he said “Nah, you’re young, you can walk!” Damn! Crystal the nurse convinced me to call my husband and let him know I was going in so he could adjust when he returned. A male attendant eventually came over to my bed and had me put on a cap. “You don’t think I’m the only one who has to wear a hat, do you?” he laughed. I wonder how many times he’s said that line?
As it turned out, because my surgery was to be in the groin, I got wheeled into the hallway on my old bed #9. I have to say that as I lay waiting in that hall just outside the electrophysiology lab, that was the only time I felt a little apprehensive. Up to that moment, I felt pretty calm and relaxed. A nurse came out and introduced herself and helped me out of the bed and we walked into the operating theatre.
It was quite the set up. There was a tall wall of monitors beside the table I was made to lie down on. One of the nurses chatted calmly with me while the other started covering me with large rectangular stickers connected to wires all over my chest, sides and back. Then the anaesthesiologist came up to me and introduced himself. “Have you ever had a general anaesthetic before?” “Nope, never.” “No?” he seemed surprised. I guess someone my age is pretty likely to have had it at least once. “Do you ever get motion sickness?” he asked. “Sometimes.” I replied. “Okay, well I’m going to give you a little something to help that first.”
I felt a cold solution go into my hand. I asked the nurse “What if I changed my mind right now? Has anyone ever done that?” She looked at me for a second and realized I was just joking. “It has happened,” she said “but usually it’s in the ward while they’re waiting for surgery.” The other nurse piped up “It’s your right, it’s your body, so you can absolutely change your mind any time you want.”
“But this is going to help you with your symptoms, you’re going to feel a lot better after this” said the other nurse. She seemed to be trying to convince me that I was doing the right thing. I was starting to wonder if they thought I was going to run. Nope, not me, I was in for the long haul.
One of the nurses started to bring a mask to my face. “Breathe normally, this is just oxygen” she said. I was looking forward to counting backwards. Would I get to 99? 98? But they didn’t ask me to count. And suddenly I felt a rush of very calm all through my body. Was that it? Then I felt a dark cloud start to block the sun. No, this is it, I thought. And I was out cold.
When I awoke I had to spend 4 more hours lying flat, keeping my right leg absolutely still and my head down. After that, it was another hour-and-a-half of slowly sitting up, then sitting with my legs on the floor, then taking short walks around the ward with my husband or my daughter supporting me.
It had been a long day, I was a little stiff and sore, my throat bothered me from the tube that had apparently been there during my surgery, but other than that, I was fine.
It’s now two days since my surgery and other than a few restrictions, I’m pretty much back to my old self. Which is amazing to me. I’ve had a few very minor palpitations, but they feel somehow different and certainly less severe than what I’m used to, and I was told to expect that over the first month post-op. And the chances are very good that I will never have to go through hours and hours of heart flutter again. I was told that I may have some atrial fibrillation in future, but we’ll deal with that if and when the time comes.
Mostly I am grateful for the wonders of medicine, and a medical system that can fix me without my having to take out a bank loan. And tomorrow I’m going golfing. Well, not entirely. I can only ride around in the cart and putt. But I’m going golfing!!