What To Do After a Heart Attack – 6 Steps For Recovery

So you just had a major cardiac event, maybe a cardiac arrest, heart attack or bypass surgery. Your recovery is going well and you are soon to be discharged from the hospital.  Sounds good, right?  Oddly enough, being told I was ready for discharge was both good news and bad news.

The good news – I had survived a cardiac arrest, heart attack, bypass surgery, and insertion of an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) – a second chance at life.

The bad news – I was 41, I had cardiovascular disease, a little machine in my chest (the above mentioned ICD), and what I viewed as a very uncertain future.  A precarious situation for the father of a 3-year-old daughter and a soon to be born son.

The funny newsMy discharge report included a diagnosis of “altered mental state”.  No, I wasn’t crazy.  It was just the lingering neurological effects a cardiac arrest has on the memory.  I think?

So I was uncertain and a little confused.  If only I had a nice list telling me what to do next…

And look at that, a nice list:

  1. Accept change
  2. Get active
  3. Socialize
  4. Manage the meds
  5. Check your head
  6. Pat yourself on the back

Great list, but what does it mean?

Accept Change

After the din of the hospital, that first week at home seemed quiet and and a bit unsettling.  I didn’t have a button to push if I felt a pain or needed a nurse.  I had to move into the guest room on the main level of our house to avoid the stairs.  I couldn’t pick up my daughter or allow her to crawl on me.  Showering was a major endeavor.  I wasn’t going to work.  I definitely felt life had changed.  Lucky for me, my wife was a rock; taking care of me, our daughter, and managing all my doctors, prescriptions, insurance claims, and home care.  Know that things are going to be different for awhile.  Accept it and move forward.

Get Active

After a few days, I started to settle into a new normal.  I was still in a lot of pain and sleep was difficult, but I was on the upswing.  I started my walking routine, getting outside a couple of times a day.  The doctors told me I needed to get my strength back.  The way to make that happen was to eat a lot, walk a lot, and rest.  I enjoyed the green light from my cardiologist to eat whatever I wanted in those first few weeks.  I also enjoyed napping twice a day (although the doctor put an end to that pretty quickly).  I found the exercise provided a physical and mental boost as well as a good sense of accomplishment.  Look at me, 41 and just realizing exercise may have positive effects on ones well being.

Socialize

We had many visitors when I returned home.  It was great to see people and be social.  We are eternally grateful for the amazing support we received from family, friends, and neighbors.  A week after I got out of the hospital, my wife and I went to a friends house for a get together. It was good to see everyone and resume normal activities, but I remember also feeling a bit overwhelmed.  I guess the party made me realize life goes on if I am there or not.  The emotional and mental stuff will be discussed more in a bit.  Everyone was very supportive and told me I looked great.  Of course they were lying, but it was nice to hear and also to see everyone.

Manage the Meds

When we got home that afternoon, I told my wife I wasn’t feeling well.  She had noticed something was off and said my skin had a grayish hue.  In light of recent events, we were little freaked out and decided to take a trip to the emergency room.  This is where things get interesting.

One benefit of my recent cardiac event, VIP treatment at the ER.  That’s right, no waiting room for me.  The nurse began to hook me up for an EKG and we started chatting.  I gave him my history and he said, “Oh man, you’re that guy!  I was here the night you came in.  We never thought you were going to make it”.  Then he called a few buddies over to prove I was still alive.   I quickly went from VIP to freak show.

Next thing, my wife starts to have contractions.  She is a little over five months pregnant at this point and was supposed to be on partial bed rest.  She was put on a gurney right next to me.  Our first date night post-cardiac event.

Several hours later, we had an update.  At five months along, we already knew my wife was pregnant, so that was not really an update.  She was told to stay off of her feet and get some rest.  If I remember correctly, my diagnosis was drug induced hepatitis.  That was a fancy way of saying I was on too many medications and my body was protesting.  I was immediately taken off of everything and sent home.  If it’s that easy to stop all the medications, why was I on them in the first place?

I learned two lessons that evening:

  1. Don’t have a major cardiac event when your wife is pregnant.  It’s just not considerate.
  2. Question all medications.  Ask why you are on them and for how long.  For insurance and liability reasons, hospitals may discharge you on a potent and unnecessary cocktail of medications.

Check Your Head

Many cardiac patients often feel a variety of emotions and mild depression during the recovery process.  According to Dr. Leo Pozuelo at the Cleveland Clinic,

“it is common for you to feel sad or depressed after a heart attack, cardiac surgery or procedure, recent hospitalization, or new diagnosis of heart disease. These emotions may be the result of not knowing what to expect or not being able to do simple tasks without becoming overly tired”.

As I mentioned above, I found myself dealing with the exact emotions Dr. Pozuelo refers to in his article; I was stressed over the uncertainty of my future and having difficulty adjusting to my new way of living.

Dr. Pozeulo goes on to say

“the temporary feelings of sadness are normal, and should gradually go away within a few weeks, as you get back to your normal routine and activities”.

Getting back to a normal routine is key.  I found my symptoms did disappear after a few weeks.

The depression was gone, but I remained very stressed out about my situation.  Oddly enough, the best insurance I had against another cardiac arrest, the ICD in my chest, was a major source of stress.  I was constantly aware of the lump under my skin.  I was worried that every odd feeling in my chest was another massive electrical storm about to kick off.

I found this article from the Harvard Health Publication describing how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) applies to those of us in the cardiac recovery process. According to the article, there are four simple questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you think about the event when you don’t want to?
  • Do you avoid situations, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of it?
  • Do you feel constantly on alert?
  • Are you feeling detached from family and friends?

Strange thing is, these questions also seem appropriate for assessing my recovery from the religious guilt I was blessed with during my childhood.  For now, just apply these questions to your cardiac recovery.  If this is you, please talk to your loved ones AND a healthcare professional.  Recovery takes an understanding of what you have been through, what your loved ones have been through, time, more time, and the acceptance of the personal and professional support available to you.

Pat Yourself on the Back

If you are finding your recovery stressful (did I mention that I did?) that might explain how you ended up a cardiac patient in the first place.  The first few days, weeks, and months of recovery are tough.  Be patient and accept the help being offered. It is hard to objectively assess what you have been through or how you are progressing. Listen to the guidance and support provided by your doctors, family and friends.  Most of all, congratulate yourself for being a survivor and appreciate the recovery process for what it is – a second chance.

 

Speak Your Mind

*