57-Year-Old Man Performs at his Tai Chi Black Belt Ceremony Just 3 Weeks After Surgery
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My name is Michael Brown. I am a 57-year-old CPA living in Annapolis. I've always been athletic, playing basketball at the University of Baltimore and later studying martial arts (tae kwon do). I learned 12 years ago that I suffered from aortic valve regurgitation, but I had no symptoms beyond high blood pressure.
I'm an auditor, and my job is obviously stressful. For years, I made sure to get regular check-ups with my cardiologist, but continued my tae kwon do training (and also began studying tai chi to relieve stress). Then, in February 2009, just as I was entering a very strenuous training cycle for my tai chi black belt, I learned that I had a large aneurysm and surgery was inevitable. It didn't need to be done the next day, but it couldn't be done the next year, either.
Finding a Surgeon/Hospital
After I got through the "Why me?" phase, I moved into the "Who's the best surgeon to do this?" phase. I read up on aortic valve replacement options and met with a surgeon recommended by my cardiologist. He suggested a pretty standard approach using a tissue valve and a large incision. I'm not going to lie: the incision was something that scared me and I wanted to know all my options. That's when I went online, learned about a minimally invasive procedure that was being performed, and found out that it was being done right here in my own backyard at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Right then, I called to make an appointment.
When we met, I was impressed that the surgeon actually listened to me and answered all my questions. He treated me like a person, not a procedure. He explained that I wasn't a candidate for the minimally invasive procedure because I'm pretty muscular, but thought he could repair my own valve rather than replace it with a tissue valve. In this case, the chance of infection was lowered by 10x. I was disappointed I couldn't have the smaller incision, but was really relieved that I could, hopefully, keep my own valve. No one else presented this option to me. I knew then that UMMC was the hospital I wanted.
Preparing For Surgery
When I first learned I needed surgery, honestly, part of me was afraid I wouldn't survive and part of me thought that this just came at a really bad time in my life (as I was preparing for my black belt training). As I learned more, I realized I would be a relatively young patient and that the survival rate was extremely high for this procedure. Then, I started worrying that I'd survive but would be "less of a man." I've always been very athletic and physically strong, but pictured myself with a shrunken chest, sitting in a rocking chair for the rest of my life. When people told me that I'd actually feel better after the surgery, it made me a little angry. I thought they were only telling me that to make me feel better and that my best days were over. I felt that no one could really understand what I was going through. But, in the end, they were right: I already feel better.
My other fear was pain. The last time I had surgery was in the 1970's for my knee. I remembered being in agony waiting for a pain shot, and was afraid the heart surgery would be even worse. I couldn't believe I didn't have any real pain from the incision/chest tubes, etc.! My only post-surgery issue was my shoulder. After being on the operating table for so long at a strange angle, it was very painful, but the hospital staff was great about making me comfortable.
The surgery was a great success the surgeon was able to repair my valve and the nursing staff took excellent care of me. After only three weeks, I was even able to perform a tai chi form at my black belt graduation ceremony on June 20th. I had set the graduation as my goal. I wanted to at least go, even if I couldn't participate. That day, I had enough energy to attend, perform, and go to an after party! After four weeks, I was walking about four to five miles at a time. I feel truly blessed and thank God and the entire staff at UMMC.
Aortic Valve Repair Patient Tips
A few months ago, I was just like you -- reading all these patient testimonials to get my head around what was happening to me. I'd like to pass on some tips that may make your recovery easier and make you feel more comfortable about having your surgery performed at UMMC:
- Don't put off the surgery: I scheduled my surgery date for a few months after I learned I needed it (due to work/personal commitments) and I worried about it/dreaded it the entire time. I should have done it right away so I could start feeling better right away. Before the surgery, I could always hear my heartbeat and thought that was normal. Now, I can't hear it any longer and don't feel as tired or as prone to anger from the high blood pressure that was caused by the leaking valve. Every day I think about what could have happened if my aneurysm had ruptured while I was working out. Don't wait.
- Your support system is crucial: You need someone you can lean on to help you through. The hospital stay and your first week or two at home can be pretty rough and it's important to have a caretaker (spouse/significant other/sibling) you can lean on physically and emotionally. Before and after my surgery, I was really disappointed that some of my closest friends and family just disappeared and never even called to check on me. This is normal, people get scared and don't know how to react to you. But, I was also amazed at how many others -- some who barely knew me -- took the time to call and visit me. The whole experience made me rethink a lot of my relationships and now I feel like I really know who has my back.
- Listen to the UMMC nursing staff: From the nurse practitioners to the nurses to the technicians, they see people like us every day. They know how far to push you and when to pull you back. They're professionals and will take great care of you.
- Take Tai Chi: It can really help prepare you for the surgery (breathing, pain management) and help you regain your strength after. You can do it at any age or fitness level.
- Set Goals: Pick an event that you want to attend or a milestone you want to reach. It will give you something to work for and keep you motivated.
- Limit your visitors: Everyone means well, but you'll really only want to see a few close family/friends at the hospital. You won't have the energy for long visits. But, you will really need visitors about two to three weeks after surgery. This is when you have just enough energy to be bored, but you still can't drive. Arrange for people to come by to take you out. Your primary caregiver could probably use the break at this point, too.
- Don't go back to work too soon: Even if you're like me -- with a desk job and the ability to check email from home -- you won't have the attention span or patience to work for several weeks. I had heard that it would be hard to concentrate but I didn't believe it until I went through it myself.