First Open Heart


I. Leaky Valve


In early January 2005, I took Joan in for an echo stress test, and she never got to the stress part. The technician brought the cardiologist in, who told us the bad news: Joan needed open heart surgery to have an aortic valve replacement sooner rather than later. We were both in shock.


We conferred with a retired cardiologist friend in Colorado. After listening to the diagnosis and what was needed to correct Joan’s heart condition, he told us what to look for in a heart surgeon. For the procedure Joan needed, the surgeon should be very skilled and have performed at least a hundred, at the very minimum fifty of the same procedure.


We met with a heart surgeon in Montana. We didn’t feel that he answered all our questions, so sought a second opinion. Through our son, an attorney in Helena, we got the name of a surgeon in Palm Springs, who met the criteria given to us by our Colorado cardiologist friend. We made an appointment to see the surgeon in Palm Springs.


To get to Palm Springs, there were a number of decisions to be made. Should we fly? If we liked the surgeon, we wanted to schedule the operation as soon as possible. We didn’t want to fly back to Helena, then fly back to the Springs. We decided to drive, but we weren’t sure that our van would make the round trip to Palm Springs. Every time we took the van in for a workup, we were charged another $1000. We finally decided to trade in our van and buy a new car, a sedan with a better miles/gallon ratio.


II. Palm Springs


No matter what, it was going to be an expensive trip. Luckily we had Medicare and supplemental insurance. We didn’t know how long we’d be in Palm Springs, so we took steps to have plenty of room on our credit cards. We didn’t know how long we’d be away. Who would look in on our house while we were gone? Our houseplants and so forth? Our daughter and son-in-law happily agreed to do that. 


Our trip down south was uneventful and quiet, except for the heavy fog in Southern Utah. We loved our new car. We drove down into Palm Springs through a landscape of palms and white wind generators and met with the heart surgeon.  We felt quite comfortable with this surgeon, who seemed not only knowledgeable but experienced. Most important of all, he answered all our questions without hesitation. It was especially important that Joan believed in and trusted this surgeon, and she did. She said that she felt herself relaxing immediately in his presence. He said he would replace her defective aortic value with a “pig” value. We made a few pig jokes and set a date for the operation.


There were additional decisions to be made. After Joan’s operation, we had to stay in Palm Springs until the surgeon felt that she was properly mending and her blood pressure was stabilized by medication. We would have to remain in the Palm Springs area for at least three weeks after Joan was discharged from the hospital. We began looking for an apartment with a kitchen and that was wheelchair accessible.


All kinds of support and prayers came our way. Our son flew in from Helena. Our daughter and son-in-law flew in from Virginia.  Joan’s cousin drove in from Whittier, California. After taking Joan in to the surgical nurse for prep work, I said, “I love you, Joan,” and the family and I waited together in the family waiting room.


III. Intensive Care


It was a long operation. After five hours, we all began to question in our hearts. The surgeon had said that five hours was max. Finally, still in his surgical gown, the surgeon came out to see us. Joan was fine. The operation went well, though they weren’t able to get started for an hour because they had difficulty attaching the heart-lung machine. It would be a little while longer before we could see her in intensive care.


So there was more waiting. But soon the ICU nurse came to get us. Only two at a time could go in to see Joan in the intensive care unit. I went in, then each of the children and Joan’s cousin took turns coming in.


It was difficult at first to see Joan with an oxygen mask and hooked up to various intravenous tubes. I prayed, “If she comes through this, O God, I am entirely yours.” I told Joan I loved her. I told her how beautiful she was. I showed her a Valentine bear, on loan from a granddaughter in Helena, that sang a happy song by the English rock/blues singer Joe Cocker when you squeezed its paw.


You are so beautiful to me.

You are so beautiful to me.

Can’t you see, you are everything

that I hope for, everything I need.

You are so beautiful to me.


Joan told me later that she doesn’t remember much of what happened in intensive care.  The staff was so wonderful, especially Boom Boom, who rode a motorcycle, was upbeat, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. All Joan’s answers had to be Yes, even when she only wanted to say No.


“For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’ For this reason it is through him that we say the ‘Amen,’ to the glory of God.”


IV. Boom-Boom


We didn’t want Joan to remain long in intensive care. We wanted her to graduate to the cardiac nursing care ward. But first she had to stand, albeit with the help of the physical therapist. 


Her first two attempts were not successful, and she was full of No’s. She did finally stand, with her own amazing effort, according to the physical therapist. When she did stand, I saw her eyes clear and focus, and I knew that she would be all right. Thanks be to God!


Joan was moved to the cardiac care unit. My son and son-in-law flew back to their respective jobs, but my daughter from Virginia stayed on to help with Joan’s recovery in Palm Springs. She took a suite down the hall from ours at Extended Stay America.


My daughter and I faced new hurdles together. First of all, nothing tasted good to Joan. We exhausted what was available in the hospital cafeteria, then we began sneaking things from outside. It was imperative that she eat and drink.


V. Home Away from Home


Back at Extended Stay, the chair that Joan would sit up in was too low; it would be difficult and painful for her to get out of it, even with her squeezing her red heart pillow. I went and looked for some lumber and a hammer and some nails to build a platform for the chair.  The lumber yard gave me the two by fours and the plywood when I explained what I needed lumber for. I was continually amazed at how kind and gracious people were when I shared why we were in Palm Springs, so far away from home. There was no end of help, it seemed.


Our next hurdle was to get Joan out of the hospital and situated at Extended Stay. For Joan to be released from the hospital, she had to keep some food down and walk down the hall and back. My daughter and I commiserated, “Where is Boom Boom when we need her!”  With all the medication in Joan, everything tasted bad, even water. She could go for only short walks to the bathroom.


Eventually Joan got tired of the hospital and she was able to meet the required milestones. We wheeled her out to the hospital curb, where she climbed into the front seat of the new car with none of the trouble we anticipated. We drove to Extended Stay, then she was back into her wheel chair. We wheeled her into our suite.  She was home in our home away from home.