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Trying to Escape the Reality of Surgery (and Realizing That Doesn't Work)

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This Saturday was relaxing, as I watched the snow storm out the window and read “The Girl on the Train.” Then my chest started vibrating.

There is nothing like looking down at your phone while the vibration warning alarm on your internal cardiac defibrillator (ICD) goes off in your chest, and you realize it’s not your phone buzzing.

Even though it wasn’t a total surprise (my ICD battery has been on the verge of dying for months), my adrenaline kicked in, as it is likely to do when it feels like a cell phone has jumped into your body and is doing a dance. Even though it was expected, it just wasn’t real until it was, well… real.

I like to think I have a good sense of humor about the whole life-threatening heart condition thing (long QT syndrome). I call myself the “bionic mutant.” I laugh off the fact that at any moment my heart could go into a deadly arrhythmia, and I could be blasted with 800 volts of electricity. Most
of the time, I’m able to forget about the life-saving device in my chest; that is, until the alarm goes off to remind me it’s there.

Since the vibrations, I’ve been trying desperately to pretend everything is just fine. I’ve spent my time doing what I do when I’m overwhelmed: escape and deny.

My first ICD-related escape came in the middle of graduate school when I was told I needed an ICD immediately. The week between spring and summer term was a blur of me reading the entire Harry Potter series before surgery.

The second surgery was emergent, and I was admitted and whisked into surgery to fix my broken ICD leads within 12 hours of arriving at the hospital. Looking back, it was pretty funny when I, in total denial, tried to argue with the nurse who told me, no, I couldn’t leave, and yes, I would have to miss work for a week. (For a first-year teacher in May, it was a nightmare.)

The third was only six weeks after the emergency surgery. I went in for my surgery follow-up, and I even told my mom and boyfriend not to worry, I didn’t need them to come since it was just going to be a quick appointment. It turned out that one of the new leads had partially slipped out of my heart, and guess what? They would have to go in and re-do everything that had been done six weeks before.

That was the Thursday before Father’s Day. We scheduled surgery for Monday, exactly six weeks after the Mother’s Day surgery. I joked with my parents that I wanted to be equal in my surgery “gifts” that year. Luckily, elation soon came in the form of my boyfriend proposing to me that Sunday. Suddenly, surgery didn’t seem quite so awful, and I spent my time in the hospital reading bridal magazines with my friends.

Eight years later, here I am again trying to escape the reality of needing surgery. This time, I’ve spent the last episodes of “Gilmore Girls” over-crying at the whimsy of Lorelai and Rory. Today, I realized I’ve been crying about a lot more than that.

It’s hard being “OK” with surgery. I think I have spent more time trying to make others feel OK about it than helping myself. Somehow, it seems easier to laugh it off at family events and minimize it with co-workers and friends. “I’m fine,” I say, “It’s not a big surgery.”

But it is big when it’s you going under the knife. It doesn’t make you any less of a person if you are afraid and anxious, especially when you’ve had rather traumatic experiences before.

I would say that to anyone other than myself. Instead, I’ve bottled in my feelings when I really don’t need to. I can lean on my support system of family and friends. It’s OK to be scared. It’s totally normal for my anxiety to be skyrocketing. I must remind myself that I am not alone, and it’s not my job to make anyone else feel better about this situation. I’ve just realized it’s OK to take care of me right now, even though it may feel selfish.

So I say to any of you out there in the scary situation of staring down a surgery: It’s OK to be needy, ask for help, and cut yourself some slack. Surgery sucks. Find a healthy way to deal with your stress, whether it be watching “Gilmore Girls,” exercising, cooking, reading, or writing – but don’t deny and push aside your feelings. Cry when you need to cry. Panic, within reason. Scream and throw things if you need to. But don’t lessen your experience or emotions. It’s rough, but we can get through this together.

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Lead photo by Thinkstock Images

Originally published: January 26, 2017
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