Pain, Driving And Nicole’s Triple Heart Valve Surgery

This just came in from Nicole after a very, very, very, very complex heart valve surgery.

Adam,

My husband, Jason, and I recently purchased your book to get a new perspective on our experience. I am five weeks post mitral valve repair, tricuspid valve repair, pulmonary valve replacement and a “maze-type” procedure. Unfortunately, my surgery was complicated by the need for a pacemaker approximately 3 weeks ago. This was not my heart first surgery as I had an atrial septal repair some 25 years prior (I am 28 years old now).

In reading your book, I had some additional questions that maybe you could answer:

1) How long were you actually in pain for? I know you mentioned that 7 weeks out you were still taking vicodin and then you started the cardio rehab. After 5 weeks, I still take 3 Percocets a day and still am in pain.

2) When were you able to resume driving? My doctors had originally told me 6 weeks but I am still in a lot of pain when I turn my head so I couldn’t imagine being able to manipulate a car in any sort of a safe manner.

I am beginning to realize that a lot of what my doctors had told me seem to be a rushed recovery, and my body is taking longer to get there. Anyway, any other information you could think of that might be helpful, please let me know.

Thanks for your time!

Sincerely,

Nicole

HERE IS MY RESPONSE TO NICOLE:

Hi Nicole,

Nice to meet you. And, thanks for sharing your story with me. (I have to admit, you are the first patient I have spoken with that had a triple heart valve surgery operation.)

You raise many interesting points specific to heart surgery recovery in your email.

First, you say, “I am beginning to realize that a lot of what my doctors had told me seem to be a rushed recovery, and my body is taking longer to get there.”

So you know, I experienced that same exact feeling. In fact, that is one of the key reasons I wrote the book… To help patients and caregivers expect the unexpected. I also wrote it to help medical professionals better understand what patients experience as they progress through this challenging, life-altering event.

As for your questions, here are some thoughts for you:

QUESTION 1: “How long were you actually in pain for? I know you mentioned that 7 weeks out you were still taking vicodin and you started the cardio rehab. After 5 weeks, I still take 3 Percocets a day and still am in pain.”

Like you, I had significant pain in my incision for about three months after surgery. That said, I also continued my use of pain killers for a good period of time after surgery (~10 weeks). So you know, my incision still hurts every once in a while – especially when I travel abroad. I carry pain killers with me just in case I need some relief. I know that I am fully healed. But, at times, my incision can become irritated when I am “on-the-go” carrying luggage and briefcases throughout Europe and Asia.

QUESTION 2: “When were you able to resume driving? My doctors had originally told me 6 weeks but I am still in a lot of pain when I turn my head so I couldn’t imagine being able to manipulate a car in any sort of a safe manner.” You just brought back an incredible memory – my first drive. It was around 8 weeks after surgery. I was told I could drive after 3 weeks but there was no way I was going to put myself and/or others at risk.

Anyways, that first drive after heart surgery was quite horrible. I was with my mom. I drove to the beach for a walk. Even though I had last drove a car 57 days earlier, it was a completely, foreign experience. The car felt like it weighed 17,000 pounds. Needless to say, there was a good amount of pain that accompanied this process. After the drive home, I felt great that I had the courage to drive again. But, at the same time, I laid down immediately and took a nap. At that point, I learned something that my surgeon, Doctor Vaughn Starnes, MD, would later echo. There is some “Gain From Pain” in heart surgery recovery. I imagine you are experiencing this in cardiac rehab. Re-animating your chest is painful but, please know, in the long run it will get better.

Personally, cardiac rehab was my saving grace. I felt better and stronger after every session. Take it slow but be committed to the exercises. And, I highly encourage you to stretch often. For me, stretching was key to getting my chest bones and muscles re-aligned. Your body is such an amazing vehicle for this life.

I hope that helps!

Keep on tickin!

Adam Pick
Written by Adam Pick

Adam Pick is a patient, author of The Patient's Guide To Heart Valve Surgery and the founder of HeartValveSurgery.com.

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