After Aortic Valve Replacement, Mavis Shares Four Heart Surgery Lessons

Here’s an interesting email I just received from Mavis. Nine weeks after heart valve replacement, Mavis has created four, key “heart valve surgery lessons” to share with our community. Here is what she writes:

Hello Adam,

My aortic valve replacement is 9 weeks behind me!  My follow up visit to the cardiologist and surgeon have reassured me that my tissue valve will probably last longer than I will (I am 67), that my chest is healing normally, that I’m not going to die, and life will eventually be better than before.

Mavis – Nine Weeks After Heart Valve Replacement

There were a couple of things that, prior to my surgery, would have fallen into the category of “things I really don’t want to know” but with hindsight, I wish now I had.  I hope they will be useful for your readers who are anticipating open heart surgery.

Things I wish I had known:

Lesson  #1 –  Take it very easy on yourself!

You will need help for virtually everything at first!  You will need help for those first few showers (get a shower stool) and don’t bother doing your hair.  Who cares!  Have comfortable clothing that is easy to put on and take off.  Heaven forbid you should sit around in your comfortable pajamas and robe. Don’t do anything your body tells you not to do! Listen to yourself and don’t be bullied. Stay in bed and read. Rest when ever you need to. Let someone else make your meals. This is no time to be a hero.

When I got home, I was not at all ready to jump out of bed every morning, shower, wash hair, dress, trot to the kitchen for breakfast and do the 20-minute brisk walk the physio has insisted on. I was told I must walk three  times a day, stay active and take “just a little rest” during the  day. Maybe a 40-year old could do that, but at 67, the first few weeks were truly brutal.  Of course, I did everything I was told…being of that generation that does not question authority, but believe me, there were times I seriously thought I was going to die in the process.

Lesson #2 – Eat  well and keep your body fueled.  It has been assaulted – it’s not your fault that you feel weak.

I was sure I would start to feel better in a week or two but I found I was continuing to feel weak, useless and pathetic. This feeling did not go away for a very, very long time in spite of what my doctors were reassuring me was a normal healing process. I found it extremely distressing, having been a very active, independent person all my life. My surgeon, at  my 6 week check explained – and this falls into the “too much information category” – that your body becomes “cannibalistic” in order to heal itself. Your wounds take what ever they need from your bodies’ resources leaving you without much left over. This is not the time to try and maintain the weight loss you incurred prior to and during your hospitalization.

Lesson #3 –  Don’t suffer in silence. The anxiety makes the discomfort much worse.

My incision was healing very well but I had excruciating pain in my back that kept we awake at night sitting on the edge of the bed wondering what was going on. After a week, I went to my family doctor who gave me a muscle relaxant for the muscle spasms, which apparently are very common.  I wish I had known and prepared for that. The medication worked pretty well and understanding what was happening reduced my anxiety. Even at 9 weeks, I still have considerable pain in my chest and around  the area of the incision. How come? The surgeon explained, and this is certainly something else I thought I didn’t want to know prior to surgery. If you are small (I am 5’2 and 120 lbs) or very obese, in order to get a clear shot at your heart, the rib cage has to be lifted up and pushed open to get access. This can and does cause dislocation of the ribs where they articulate with the spine and breast bone as well as, sometimes, cracking or even breaking of the ribs. Knowing this would have made the discomfort manageable and would have reduced the fear that I was injuring myself every time I activated a hot spot.

Lesson #4  –  Get ALL the information you need to feel comfortable about your choices.

I chose to have a tissue valve so that I would not have to take anti-coagulants for the rest of my life (Coumadin). It was the right choice at my age, but following my surgery I became almost obsessed with the idea that if this valve was only going to last 10 years, and my resting heart rate was about 90, that meant I had about 1/3 less time before I had to go through all this again. I could see no possible reason to go out for the fast walks that had been ordered and reduce that time even more and,  I can tell you without hesitation, that I don’t want to ever go through this again.  My cardiologist and surgeon both assured me my valve would probably still be working just fine when I die of something else 20 years from now. The 10-year thing is just a statistic based on averages. I choose to believe this and I firmly envision myself at the top end of the bell curve. And anyway, in 10 years from now a new valve could probably be shot up your arm!

I hope everyone who has this procedure done has as wonderful a team of doctors, nurses and helpers as I did.  My medical team at the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria were absolute angels and I am so fortunate to live in British  Columbia where this specialized care is available and totally without cost. Oh Canada!


Mavis McClintock
Duncan, British Columbia, Canada

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

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