Updated: Oct 12, 2020
How Can We Support Loved Ones Going Through Open-Heart Surgery?
By Kirsten Garvin - Team Member and Staff Writer for The Cardiac Bear
In late 2019, 27-year-old Jason and his wife Emalee faced an impending medical crisis; Jason was going to need open heart surgery at Ohio State University's Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital. It was an intimidating journey, and they agreed to an interview to share thoughts on what that the process was like, how they supported each other, and how loved ones were able to support them.
Jason, can you express what it was like and how it felt being told that you were going to need open heart surgery?
Jason: "When the doctor that would be performing the surgery first came in and said I'd be needing open heart surgery my first thought was 'No...no, there is a way around it, I'm 27, something can be done..' I didn't say anything. I couldn't. I felt frozen in time. The doctor walked out. I started to cry. I didn't make noise. I didn't do anything. The tears just came rolling silently.
"The nurse asked if we had any questions or concerns about the procedure. I really wanted to personally know if there was a chance of waking up [during the surgery]? Is there a chance I'll be put under and be able to feel it all but not communicate that to the team? What is the survival and success rate of this particular surgery? She answered all the questions as the doctor walked back in to schedule it.
"Meanwhile, I'm still sitting there thinking about any way out of the surgery I could possibly find that would keep me alive and avoid the possibility of death from such an intense surgery. I told the doctor I'd like to wait until the new year so I could enjoy the holidays with family and friends (plus it was our first holidays as newlyweds) before having such a risky surgery.
"I'm paraphrasing, but the doctor pretty much said, 'Do you think that giving yourself the extra few months to get up the courage to have the surgery is really going to help? I've seen this before with many patients, but you wanna know the truth? You'll be just as terrified of the surgery as you are right now, in fact you might be more afraid because you gave yourself so much time and then you might not even want to do it. I don't think you realize just how serious this is...' He was 100% right, I could feel it. That moment right there is where it hit me like a ton of bricks...I'M REALLY HAVING OPEN HEART SURGERY."
What sorts of things did people in your circle do or say that were comforting or helpful to you, Jason?
Jason: "Honestly, I have a strong faith in God. My circle of friends are all Christians. One moment that sticks out to me the most is the morning of the surgery walking toward the door--and all along our hallway my wife had taped up papers on the wall. Each one with a different Bible verse--about about strength, courage, trusting in God, faith, etc. As I walked that long narrow hallway and read all those verses, I knew in my heart I was coming out of surgery here or in heaven, and either way my wife and God would be there every single step of the way. The morning of surgery I felt a peacefulness that I've felt before. Without my wife, my circle of friends, or God all by my side and at the hospital that morning, I don't know how I would have gotten through it. But it all started with my wife's Bible verses taped to the wall."
Emalee--how did you feel when you found out your husband was going to be needing open heart surgery?
Emalee: "My first feelings were to comfort Jason despite my heart and mind filling with fear and anxiousness. I knew that I had to do my best to stay strong and be the encourager.
"The toughest part was trying to encourage him when all I wanted to do was cry. There were nights leading up that we both would just lose it and that was all we could do. That was our cry to God to give us the strength and peace that surpasses all understanding.
"There were moments I felt that strength and peace and moments I felt that it was nowhere to be found. There were many times I felt that it was all a dream and none of it was real--but we pressed on."
Is there anything you two would suggest people NOT do or say to someone who’s going through a medical crisis?
Emalee: "Everyone is going to feel a little different or think a little different due to their past experiences. Jason had a lot of negative medical experiences growing up. He had huge fears about doctors and hospitals and that he had to try to face quickly.
"Since everyone's different the main things I would say are NEVER okay to say are…
'God's got a plan.'
'Everything is going to be fine.'
'Don't stress, the doctors and surgeons have done this before, it is what they get paid to do.'
"It was too hard to think of needs when we felt so much fear and uncertainty. During that time before surgery if someone were to just ask what we needed, I would just say that I wasn't sure. It is probably helpful for those around the family to simply do what they think the family might need."
Jason: "When you get that sick, you almost expect to hear everything imaginable, but I was lucky enough to have people in my life that just always knew what to say and when to say it.. It comes back to the people you have on your team. Just realize and know that no matter what anyone says, THEY MEAN WELL!
"Also..It's unfair to hold false hope! That's the one thing I'd never say--that 'No matter what you will come out alive.' Prepare yourself for all endings."
What are the best ways for family or loved ones to support someone who’s recovering from open heart surgery?
Jason: "1) The biggest thing (other than my wife helping me day and night) that really got us through it all, is that we both have bosses that were very understanding and very flexible with us.
2) A special friend of ours set up a Meal Train on Facebook. Those meals were one less thing we had to worry about. We have friends that go above and beyond.
3) Our friend came to sit with me during the
recovery while my wife was at work. She understood I'd be out like a light the whole time, she just came to offer comfort. I would wake up every once in a while and she'd be sitting there doing whatever she brought; coloring, work, etc. And just knowing she was there (however boring it might have been for her) made me feel important. Made me realize I had a true friend. That's something special that people underestimate. We all need people like that during a difficult time, especially in a hospital laying in a bed!"
Emalee: "1) Prayer. It may not seem like much and it may not be felt but that can change a lot.
2) Just talking about other things. Not always mentioning the surgery can be helpful, talking about other life things to keep the family grounded helps.
3) The meal train was super helpful. Most people gave us gift cards and that was also a huge benefit because we were able to use that when we really needed it. We saved a lot of that for when I went back to work so that I could care for him instead of focusing on the kitchen."
We're so thankful for Jason and Emalee sharing their story with us, and so happy that Jason's recovery has gone so well this last year. We wish them the very best of health and happiness!
If you have a journey you'd like to share, we'd love to hear it!