Personal Stories: ElaineWolfe

Thursday, January 17, 2008, a typical cold winters evening in Michigan. I had just finished watching two of my favorite shows, "Survivor" and "The Celebrity Apprentice." Suddenly I noticed a sharp pain just below the indentation in my neck that seemed to go through to my back. My right jaw also hurt. I asked my husband, Jim, to rub my back and the pain went away. So I went to bed. I was awakened about an hour later by the same pain. This time I asked my husband to drive me to the hospital.

The hospital closest to us, Providence, was for emergency only. They were building a new hospital which was going to be state-of-the-art. So here we were driving to the emergency at a new hospital that wasn't a hospital quite yet.

We were in emergency all Thursday night into Friday. They did an EKG and regular testing and could find nothing wrong. They must have given me something for the pain, because I was quite comfortable. I thought that they were going to send me home. So did the doctor on duty in the emergency room who said, "If it was up to me you would go home, but the cardiologist on duty at the main hospital wants to see you." The main hospital where I went via ambulance, was about 25 minutes away. Again nothing seemed to be happening at the hospital. Again Jim and I thought that they were going to send me home. So Jim drove home to let the dog out. While he was gone the cardiologist, Dr. Saba, came in with some interns. He asked them, "If a patient presents with these symptoms, what might you think it could be?" I have no idea what the interns said, but then Dr. Saba said, "And what would be your next step?" Whatever the interns said sent me immediately to get a dye study cat scan. I knew something was up by the way everyone was acting. I suddenly had many doctors (I guess that is who they all were.) in my room. Dr. Saba told one of the nurses to call my husband. He then gave me a brief idea of my problem and told me that I was going to have emergency open-heart surgery.

Jim and our oldest son, Scott, stood at the side of my hospital bed. The doctors were on the opposite side. I was sitting up. I had arrived in emergency about 18 hours earlier. It was now about 5:00 p.m. on Friday. Dr. Saba told us that I had a dissected aorta and needed immediate open-heart surgery. Jim's knees seemed to buckle and he leaned into the bed. He put his hands on the mattress, bending forward as if to brace himself and said, "No, we can't do this...not again."

I had open-heart surgery in 2002 at the age of 52 for a bicuspid aortic valve, which was replaced with a St. Jude mechanical valve. My bicuspid valve was a result of having rheumatic fever when I was a child. After I had my first open-heart surgery I vowed never to have to do that again and had taken steps to insure that I was taking care of my heart. I had exercised three times a week at the cardiac rehab gym from 2002 until the present. I had exercised the day before the aorta dissected. I had tap danced every week for 12 years. I had a tap class in the evening of January 14, just 3 days before my aorta dissected.

Dr. Saba was so kind. He took Jim and Scott to an area where they could view the image of my heart on the computer and explained to them what had happened and why I had to have the surgery immediately. It never occurred to me that I might die. I guess I did not have time to think about it. But it must have occurred to my family, as Jim had tears in his eyes as they wheeled me to the operating room.

The actual surgery for my ascending dissected aorta took about 5 hours. My anxious family (which now also included our other son, my brother and his wife) must have went through a very hard time waiting to be notified that the surgery was over. I woke up on a respirator in the ICU hooked up to all kinds of tubes and wires. I remember looking at everyone and motioning that I wanted to write. They gave me a pad of paper and a pen and I wrote 'out' and pointed to the respirator that was down my throat. The nurse must have given me something to knock me out again soon after that.

I was in the hospital for six days. I had another visit to the hospital emergency room on Super Bowl Sunday. Jim had to call EMS because I was having a rapid heartbeat, which left me short of breath, feeling like I was going to pass out. I was in the hospital for two nights. I could not wait to get out.

It has been a rough road. I had some other complications; costochrondritis - which is an inflammation of the sternum. Then in June I was diagnosed with an infection in my incision caused from one of the internal stitches. In July I retired from my job, which I had for 16 years, because I could not keep up with it any longer. I needed to focus on my health issues. I am feeling pretty good now. It is October 29, 2008, and I will be having my gallbladder removed on November 12. After that I hope that all of the "surprises" are done and I will be what I call "a real girl" again.

Some of the things that I have learned and am still learning after having two open-heart surgeries is that I won't be exactly as I was before. There are things to adjust to. I call it my new "norm." My mechanical valve is loud and seems to be even louder since the graft was put on the aorta for the dissection. A doctor told me that you get used to the sound. But I do not think that I ever have. You just learn to live with it. I am very conscious of things going on in my body. I know to back off exercising when I feel what I call a "bubble" in my chest or if I feel a bit nauseous. I have to repeatedly tell myself that "everything isn't something." So if I feel a bit strange it doesn't have to mean something. I know that I am the judge of what I can do. The doctors encourage you to do whatever you want. I pulled a vacuum up four stairs in March and ended up with the inflamed sternum. Guess I shouldn't have done that. My pectoral muscles seem to be very weak, a problem that I did not have with the first open-heart surgery. So I am very conscious of lifting things now.

The best thing that I have ever done is to continue going to cardiac rehab at Providence Hospital to exercise. It is like going to a gym for people with heart issues. You have your blood pressure taken once before you start to exercise and once while you are exercising. I also wear a heart monitor to give me my heart rate. It cost me $50 a month and I go three times a week. The gals that work in the rehab are professional, caring individuals. They keep an eye out to make sure that everyone is okay. And you get a chance to meet other people who have had open-heart surgery. I have met several people who have had their aortic valves replaced, but so far no one who had had an aortic dissection. Even when I don't feel like exercising, if I go I know I will feel better afterwards just from talking to the friends I have made.

"Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass. It is about learning to dance in the rain."

It is so nice to be able to go to a website that is devoted to aortic dissection. Thanks.

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