Back on 18th May 2016 I met my heart surgeon for the first time. I wanted to share about it straight away but I couldn’t. I didn’t feel able to. I’ve needed some time to process and reflect upon it first. It was a profound day in my life.
And down right weird.
For those of you who don’t know, I’ve got a congenital heart defect. I am looked after by an Adult Congenital Heart Team, which consists of medical cardiologists, specialist nurses and surgeons. Patients only get to meet the surgeons when it is definite that surgery is required and can go ahead.
For the last 5 years ‘the surgeon’ has felt like a strange mythical character, in a far away land. I’d heard a lot about him, but had never seen him. I could only hope that he was as wonderful as everyone had told me.
So on May 18th I put on my best shoes and danced off to meet him. This wonderful surgeon of Oz. I got the bus to the city, and walked the long way to the cardiology centre, but there was no yellow brick road, just what felt like miles of long, sterile white corridors.
No scarecrow. No tin man. No lion.
It felt very strange knowing I was about to meet the person who would be mooching and fiddling around inside my chest. It’s weird. Hard to get your head around.
But little did I know that there was even weirder stuff to come.
The thing that bothers me the most about the surgery is being so vulnerable, so open, so dependent on others. Literally unconscious with my chest broken and pulled apart. My heart stopped. Reliant on machines to pump blood around my body and oxygen into my lungs.
Exposed. Violated. No control.
I still shudder at the thought as I write this. I try not to think about it you see. It scares me. It scares me because I won’t be able to defend myself, protect myself.
And yet remembering that I am the one who is putting myself in that position. It’s my choice. But I’m kind of being forced into making that choice because I’m getting sicker, my heart is getting weaker.
“You’ve outlived your life expectancy.”
Anyway. I digress. Back to that first meeting.
I stopped in the hospital chapel to pray. I like to look at the prayer requests that have been left in there, written by people feeling all sorts of pain and despair. I like to pray for them. It helps me get perspective. Get a grip.
When I got to the cardiology department, booked myself in and sat in the waiting room, I saw a woman there. I smiled at her, noticing the little white trenches that her tears had left in her perfectly applied makeup. I asked if she was OK. She told me that her 19 year old daughter was having an echo scan – a check up following a heart valve replacement 6 weeks earlier. Her third surgery. She was doing really well.
The mum went on to tell me how many heart surgeons and cardiologists they’d had over the last 19 years and how, out of all of them, Mr C was the best one. Who was I seeing? Mr C! She sang his praises. He listened. He cared. He was arrogant but skilled. She reassured me the best she could. She encouraged me. She helped me. She pointed out the way to go.
She was my Glinda that day.
Then I heard my name being called. A familiar voice. It was one of my nurse specialists, who had come to support me in this first meeting. Was I ready? She asked. Come on then, lets go through.
He’s in there.
The wonderful surgeon.
And off we went.
Mr C met me with a big smile and a firm, steady handshake. I instantly went into my smiley, funny, happy protective mode. I wanted him to like me. I needed him to care, so he would want to save my life, do his best work.
Lovely accent Mr C, which part of Spain are you from? please like me Oh how lovely, I’ve always wanted to go to Spain please don’t let me die.
Niceties over we went straight into talking details.
Gory, scary details.
Risks, side effects, dangers. Death, stroke, kidney failure, heart failure, pain.
“But of course you are already at risk of all of these things living with your heart condition now. These risks will be higher during the surgery and it will make you feel bad, really bad. But the point is if you survive and recover well from the surgery these risks in your life will be lowered, you will be able to build up your fitness again and live a normal life, a longer life”.
He explained how he would take some of the pericardium sac from around my heart and use it to patch the holes. Then move the blood vessels that are in the wrong place. Although every heart defect is unique, he had performed similar surgeries countless times. It was a big deal for me, but routine for him.
The fitter and lighter and healthier I am before the surgery the better.
Then we talked about dates for the surgery.
Yes, December Mr C, give me more time to lose weight, etc.
December? He asked again, his face suddenly lit up beaming with hope and excitement.
Well in that case, how would you feel about having your surgery performed by a robot?
I looked at my nurse. She looked at me. We looked at Mr C, and said in perfect unison.
An actual robot?
Yes! An actual robot!
You could’ve heard an ant whispering.
I think my nurse must’ve looked more shocked than I did.
Mr C went on to explain how he would be in a special console room next to me controlling the robot. Like a computer game.
Except its not really is it? It’s my heart. My body. My life!
He had never performed surgery like this before. He is having training in America over the summer, which he is funding himself. And he will be ready to carry out his first robotic surgery in the UK in December. The first of its kind in the UK. Would I be his first patient?
The benefits for me are that it isn’t open heart surgery. The robot is able to reach my heart precisely through ribs on the right side of my chest. So no broken sternum, no huge wound to heal. The robot can move even the tiniest of blood vessels, ones that the surgeon on his own cannot. And the specialist surgeon from America will be here supervising Mr C as he does it.
The down sides are that the procedure will take a lot longer, about 10 hours. That’s a long time to be under anaesthetic. There is potentially longer in intensive care, and none of the medical staff will have looked after anyone from this type of surgery before.
Overall, the initial recovery will take less time, about 6-8 weeks. Which means I can start gaining fitness again faster.
It is less routine. Not as straightforward. The robot could go wrong. The surgeon will be less experienced in performing the operation in this way.
But it is pioneering. And could pave the way for future heart patients. Save more lives in the future.
And I like the sound of that.
So will I let a robot operate on my heart?
Yes, a robot.
And yes. I will!
I left that first meeting quite excited actually. Yes the surgery is still scary and unknown – now even more so. But I feel a sense of God being in charge. The timing of this is so perfect, is must be intentional.
Meant to be.
I’m not meeting Mr C again until about October time. I’ll see my cardiologist, Dr C in September. It’ll be interesting to hear what he thinks about it all. In the meantime I have to focus on my health, weight loss and fitness. And preparing myself spiritually and practically.
Right now I’ve hit a bit of a wall with that, but I’ll share that in another blog soon.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments about my surgery. Would you let a robot near your heart? Would you be a pioneer?