I’ll never forget the day in September 2017 when, driving in the car with my husband, I received a call from my physician saying I needed to have an angiogram as soon as possible. A couple of days before he had done several lung and heart tests on me including a stress ECG and this had shown an abnormality.
There are no cardiologists in George and he told me he was going to consult with the one in Mossel Bay about it. I had made the appointment with the physician after experiencing breathlessness in my classes for several months. I was not a stranger to shortness of breath having also experienced it when I had undiagnosed Vitamin B 12 deficiency two years before but now I was on treatment for that so it was a surprise it had come back.
A few days later I had the angiogram in Mossel Bay which showed a 95% blockage in the LAD (the most important artery feeding the heart) and 75% blockage in three other arteries. The cardiologist strictly forbade me to do any exercise and said I needed a Coronary Bypass quite urgently. That day, being in the cardiac ward for the angiogram, I noticed that none of the patients looked anything like me, being predominantly male, overweight and over seventy. I couldn’t understand why I was with them, I had none of the risk factors except perhaps a slight family history. However what did come up in later discussions with the surgeon was my high homocysteine levels caused by Vitamin B12 deficiency and the link this has to coronary artery disease.
On the 19th of September I was admitted for surgery which took place early the next morning. A Coronary Bypass is major open heart surgery. The operation itself lasts for over five hours and the heart is stopped during that time and the blood bypassed through a machine. In order to make new arteries they have to take arteries and veins from other parts of your body and I had two arteries harvested from my chest and arm and a vein from each of my legs – this leaves long wounds. Your sternum is cut right open and then wired closed afterwards and for this reason you are not allowed to pick up anything heavier than 800gms nor get up using your arms, nor sleep on your side for six weeks after the op in case it breaks open again. I was five days in Cardiac Intensive Care connected to what seemed like a hundred machines and every minute of the day something tortuous was being done to me as they tried to get my lungs and heart working again, but I had a wonderful cardiac-thoracic surgeon who promised me every day that I would be teaching again in weeks even though it was very difficult to believe at the time.
At home a long rehabilitation started, physically and emotionally. I had been warned by my surgeon that one of the worst things I would face was depression and this proved to be true. My physical recovery was in the form of walking three times a day. In the beginning it was almost impossible to walk at all due to shortness of breath and pain and the numerous medicines I had to take. My husband doggedly walked with me every day until I was brave enough to go on my own and eventually managed three kilometres.
I decided (with my surgeon’s approval, provided I did not do planks or other exercises that put a strain on the sternum) to start teaching again at eight weeks post op. I had managed to find a surrogate teacher but my members were all keen for me to return. Now I had to get some sort of fitness back. At six weeks I started with light arm exercises only (I was amazed at how much my arm muscles had atrophied) – first with no weights and then with light weights. After this I realised I had to get a class together but found it almost impossible to move the way I used to. My lower legs were completely numb and inflexible from the vein harvesting and I couldn’t flex the hand of the arm where they took an artery. My whole chest was painful and tight and I was still worried about the sternum cracking open again. I was overwhelmed with anxiety and depression. Luckily it was about this time that I again saw my surgeon (it was every two weeks after surgery) and he told me I was recovering marvellously and that, physically, I was better than ever. He has a wonderful way of making you feel good about yourself – so I came home and just got on with it.
That first class post surgery was probably one of the hardest things I have ever done. I won’t pretend I did it perfectly, I know I didn’t. I couldn’t properly bend my legs or lift my arms or use my stomach correctly. I did simple exercises and easy aerobics and made it quite a short class but in the end it worked out fine. I have wonderful members who were incredibly supportive and helpful – and who were terribly pleased I couldn’t do planks with them for a while! Since then it has only gotten better and better and I can say with authority that if you want to recover quickly after surgery – exercise, exercise, exercise. Yes, things will hurt for a while but the more you can stretch that scar tissue the quicker it will heal and become supple and at the same time the endorphins help lift you out of any emotional state you might be in. In all my classes I included exercises that helped my recovery and, of course, were some benefit to members.
I won’t say I’m a hundred percent yet. It takes about a year to really feel yourself again. From the long anaesthetic it seems I have developed asthma and will probably have to be on an inhaler for the rest of my life. One of my legs is still a little stiff but I’m hoping that will eventually get better. I have to take beta blockers and anti-coagulants for a while yet and they seem to slow me down. I also have to face the fact that I’m probably not going to live as long as my husband nor see my grandchildren past their early twenties. But what I can say is I’m very happy today that I’m a Fitness League teacher. I love teaching and I know it speeded up my recovery enormously – not just the exercise but the whole package: the interaction with members, the class planning, the search for the next piece of music that I just have to use. There was no time for self-pity or too much self-reflection. I am grateful that I have it in my life.
Author: Terry Hodson