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How to face fear and other Coping Strategies for Pre- and Post-Heart Surgery -42
Episode 4219th March 2024 • The Heart Chamber • Boots Knighton
00:00:00 00:28:27

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Join Boots Knighton in this eye-opening episode as she addresses the emotional and psychological preparations leading up to open heart surgery. Through a powerful email from a listener, Boots explores the profound impact of past trauma and loss on the prospect of surgery, discussing the fears and anxieties that accompany such a life-altering procedure. With her trademark openness and vulnerability, Boots offers a unique perspective that delves into the intersection of mental health, resilience, and the challenging journey towards recovery. If you're curious about the emotional complexities of navigating major surgery, this episode provides a compelling and thoughtful exploration of courage, vulnerability, and the power of hope in the face of adversity.

Boots Knighton has been an educator since the late 1990s in all facets of education including high school science, middle school mathematics, elementary reading, college level ecology, ski instruction, backpacking, and experiential education. Her greatest teacher has been her heart thanks to a surprise diagnosis in 2020 (during the pandemic) of three different congenital heart defects. She is now thriving after her open-heart surgery on January 15, 2021 and is on a mission to raise awareness through her podcast, The Heart Chamber: patient stories of open-heart surgery and recovery, that heart surgery can be an incredible opportunity to begin again in life and live life wide open.


How to connect with Boots

The Heart Chamber - A podcast for heart patients (theheartchamberpodcast.com)

Email: Boots@theheartchamberpodcast.com

Instagram: @theheartchamberpodcast or @boots.knighton

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/boots-knighton

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The Heart Chamber - A podcast for heart patients (theheartchamberpodcast.com)

Transcripts

We feel it is important to make our podcast transcripts available for accessibility. We use quality artificial intelligence tools to make it possible for us to provide this resource to our audience. We do have human eyes reviewing this, but they will rarely be 100% accurate. We appreciate your patience with the occasional errors you will find in our transcriptions. If you find an error in our transcription, or if you would like to use a quote, or verify what was said, please feel free to reach out to us at connect@37by27.com.

Boots Knighton [:

Today, I answer an email that I received from a listener of The Heart Chamber Podcast. She wanted to know if she is going to be the same after heart surgery. I address that and so much more in today's episode. Let's get right to it.

Boots Knighton [:

Welcome to The Heart Chamber. Hope, inspiration, and healing. Conversations on open heart surgery. I am your host, Boots Knighton. If you are a heart patient, a caregiver, a health care provider, a healer, or are just looking for open hearted living, this podcast is for you. To make sure you are in rhythm with The Heart Chamber, be sure to subscribe or follow wherever you are listening to this episode. While you're listening today, think of someone who may appreciate this information. The number one-way people learn about a podcast is through a friend. Don't you want to be the reason someone you know gained this heartfelt information? And if you haven't already, follow me on Instagram, 2 different places, at Boots.Knighton or at The Heart Chamber Podcast. You can also find me on LinkedIn as well as Facebook. But enough with the directions. Without further delay, let's get to this week's episode.

Boots Knighton [:

Oh, this episode, I've been excited for this one. I got an email from one of you listeners a couple of weeks ago, and I was so touched by it. I do answer every single email I receive. I answer every single Instagram message. It may not be very speedy, but I do make sure I reach out to every single listener who reaches out to me. And, again, my email is boots@theheartchamberpodcast.com. I really do want to know how you are. I want to know how this podcast is resonating or not. And I want to hear what do you specifically need help with. I'm not a cardiologist. I am a thriver of open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with a lot of heart patients. I've also spoken with a lot of caregivers and providers. So, I do feel like I am an armchair cardiologist some days. But I wanted to read you this email I got from, we'll call her JS, and it reads, I love your podcast. I've listened to all the ones for February, 3 times each. They have really helped as I wait for my bicuspid aortic valve replacement with mechanical valve and LAD artery bypass that is 80% blocked. I am 46, and my surgery date is March 26. I'm going to leave out where she had surgery or where she's going to have surgery just to protect her anonymity.

Boots Knighton [:

But she does go on to say, I really wanted to go to the Cleveland hospital, but after having my heart cath at the local hospital, I am so impressed with them that I decided to go there. I've been through so much. I've lost my fiancé of 25 years ago to a fall, and then my husband 13 years ago to suicide. I am scared to death for the surgery. The fear is so haunting. Am I going to make it? Is my heart going to start again? Am I going to get off the breathing machine? Am I going to be the same person? My surgeon and cardiologist have assured me that my heart and lungs are strong. How do you get to the day of surgery and the day before surgery? This is so hard. I like how you talk about holding fear in one hand and tell yourself how much better is going to be in the other. Thank you so much for your podcast. Well, thank you so much again for this email. And it was all the questions I had and more. I will start off by saying none of us get to have our heart events in a vacuum. And what I mean by that is life already happened for us, to us, for however long we've been alive. When it's time for our heart chapter, as I refer to it for myself, my heart chapter, what came with it was a bunch of joy and also a lot of traumas because being a human is hard, and also being a human is awesome. And so, I brought with me, the murder of my best friend. And I brought with me the joy of living in the Tetons, and being a ski instructor and being an educator. I also brought with me my sobriety, thankfully. But when I decided to stop drinking, I had a whole lot of things I had to deal with before I could really comfortably be in my sobriety. So, I had to do a lot of sole excavation. That started in 2010. I came to my heart surgery like a woven fabric of different colors and textures that really gave me the tools that I needed in order to get through surgery. And so, when I look at this email from this listener, JS, and see that she lost her fiancé, she lost her husband, and suicide grief is so challenging. It's challenging like, violence grief. One I went through. If there is ever an upside to that, believe it or not, I can find an upside to grieving my best friend's murder was I had to learn the coping skills. I had to learn the distress tolerance skills in order to get through that period in my life. And it actually set me up for success for open heart surgery. I can't even believe what I just said. Like, who knew I would ever say, because of my best friend's murder, I was able to cope with and successfully get through open heart surgery. That is a weighted sentence, and it's true. We do have a choice on if we are going to remain in a powerless mindset, or are we going to get in the driver's seat of our life and make the most of the situation that we have been or that we have found ourself in. So, and, JS, I'm not at all implying you're a victim here, but that's just how I see it for myself. And this could be applied to any major surgery or major life event.

Boots Knighton [:

Heck, you might be terrified of flying, and you're going to try to get on a plane for the first time in your life. We all face something scary in our life if we're doing life right. And what I mean by that is, like, we either can sit in our house on our couches and watch TV and eat Bonbons all day, or we can get out and participate in life. And I dare say every time we get behind the steering wheel, that is more dangerous than heart surgery. That's kind of how I looked at my heart surgery. I looked at all the odds, and there's so much data now that supports the real possibility that your heart surgery will be successful, and that you will live a long thriving, beautiful, happy life. There is so much data behind that. And with that also, you have a choice in what you go looking for. You know, if you want to find doom and gloom, you can find it all day long every day just turn on the TV and turn on any news channel. Or you can find hope, inspiration, and healing, which is this podcast and so many others and talking to fellow heart patients and getting on Instagram even and typing in the hashtag open heart surgery, and you're going to find so many people who have successfully landed on the other side and say it's one of the best days of their life. I know that my heart surgery was one of the best days of my life, and every single heart patient I've ever interviewed has said the exact same thing. So, there are some strong data points right there. As far as the breathing machine is concerned, that thing just sucks. I just don't have any other way to describe it. It really sucks, and that was traumatic. It obviously works because myself and so many others have been on the heart and lung machine and then go out about their lives. And I will say there is trauma from it. It is not pleasant, but it does end. And that is a really important piece to know is that it is temporary. When we're in fear, and I'm speaking from experience and remember this like it was yesterday, when I was in fear of my open-heart surgery because it was an unknown. I had never been through it before. So, of course, I had fear about it. It was hard for me to be able to think rationally about this is temporary. I will heal. I'm in good hands, and that everything is happening for me. It was really hard to keep all that straight in my brain, so let me be that in your ear now. Whatever you are facing, it is temporary. If you're in the middle of a joyful day, that also was temporary. We are all human beings having a human experience and kind of a chaotic world at the moment. And so, everything is temporary. And it's just such a powerful lesson to be in the present moment and be with what is to radically accept it, whether it's joy, ecstasy, comedy, to grief, despair, fear.

Boots Knighton [:

Be in that moment and just allow it to be. Allow it to sit with you, sit with it, make friends with it. So, with the breathing machine, the less you fight it, the less it's going to suck. Even though the physician assistant for my surgeon the day before sat me down and walked me through the whole thing, what it was going to be like, it didn't matter. I woke up in the moment after open heart surgery, and I panicked because this thing is down my throat. But the other thing that really made it challenging for me was I was immediately sick to my stomach from the anesthesia, and I needed to vomit. I was, you know, intubated. And so, I had this real fear that I was going to aspirate. Luckily, it all worked out for me. I don't even remember it getting taken out of my throat, and then I moved on. But I'm just not going to polish a turd here. It's super uncomfortable, but they do this all day long, every day, people in the ICU, and you will be fine. JS also asks about, am I going to be the same person? Do you want to be? That's a question to honestly ask yourself. I wasn't. There's just no way I was going to be the same person. My surgeon had handled my heart. He cut into the heart muscle, unroofing the arteries that had been stuck or had tunneled into my heart muscles called myocardial bridging. And it just shifted my soul. It was so bizarre. Like, before my open-heart surgery, I kept saying to my therapist, I said, I just don't understand it. All I can say is I feel like I need to have my chest cut open. And I felt like the craziest person in the world saying that out loud, but it was true. I knew my heart needed help. It needed oxygen. It needed blood flow. So, when or after my heart was cut open and my blood flow was restored to my heart, I was radically different. I had hope. I mean, I had gone for months going to bed every single night wondering if I'd wake up the next morning. And then now I feel like I'm going to live, that changed me. And, you know, I did my TEDx talk, and for people who are just now finding me, welcome. I did a TEDx Talk that's now on YouTube. It's called, Practicing Dying for Living. And I spoke about the 5 minutes before my open-heart surgery and how that 5 minutes that I had to reflect on my life changed everything for me. Some people say second act, others might say bonus days. I honestly don't know what I am calling it now. And it's interesting. Just this morning, I was in a conversation with a friend, and I'm just now over 3 years from my open-heart surgery, which is just amazing to think about. And I feel like I'm still getting to know myself, my new self since open heart surgery. And I reflect on the 1st year now, and I was not fully in my body. I was not fully integrated. I was a little disassociated. And if you go back and listen to my story, my mom died 9 weeks after my open-heart surgery, and then I had to clean her house out. I'm an only child, and she lived 2,000 miles away and alone. So, it was a really tricky time for me, and then I needed 2 more surgeries due to complications from the sternotomy. And so, I just had a lot of medical trauma and then losing a parent.

Boots Knighton [:

The whole 1st year after my open-heart surgery was just filled with a lot of grief, anger, and disbelief even, and overwhelm. And it was during the pandemic, so it just was not my best year. And then my 2nd year post open heart, that's when I kind of really started to come back into my own and start to really accept that I had just been through the ringer. At the start of year 3, I am feeling like I am really coming into my own now. Give yourself a ton of grace for the 1st year after your heart surgery. A ton of grace. Mind, body, spirit. Because you're about to go on an incredibly epic journey that if reflected upon in a grounded wise minded way, can be the best chapter of your life. I firmly believe that with everything, everything that I am. So, you wanted to know also how did I walk into this open-heart surgery, like, the day before, the day of? My husband, he actually drove me. It was 5 hours away from where I live. And so, the day before was filled, like, I checked into the hospital and I had to do a whole bunch of different tests. They do a bunch of blood work. They take X-ray of your chest. And then, you know, a lot of counseling like, my surgeon came and talked to me about cardiac depression, which, boy, that definitely came to pass for me, and I'll talk about that in a minute. They coached me on the coming off the bypass machine and what to expect, you know, the morning of. And then they left us alone. I remember my husband just finally collapsed in the, like, day bed beside me in the hospital room. And he was just so exhausted. And so, whoever is helping you through this, they are likely already tired because what we don't realize is our caregivers, they are experiencing this through a whole other lens of fear.

Boots Knighton [:

They don't know if they're about to lose their loved one. They don't know what is about to happen. They don't know how we really feel. I won't ever forget that. He just finally, like, knew he could really rest because he knew that surgery was about to happen, that nothing could kill me now. And he really thought my heart was going to kill me before we could get to heart surgery in time. But as for me, I watched Bob Ross the night before my open-heart surgery. I never watched Bob Ross before. I don't like TV, but I do remember Bob Ross, and he happened to have his own channel in the hospital, which made sense. And if you're not familiar with Bob Ross, he was this adorable man who painted beautiful calm scenes, like mountain scenes and lakes and rivers and streams, and had this calm voice and just you could tell he was so kind. And I watched him all evening and ate food, and then I had to take a really, like, detailed shower where I had to scrub myself head to toe with an antibacterial soap. And then I went to bed, and I went to bed clutching a stuffed animal that a friend had given me that I didn't realize would end up being such a fixture for me over the next year. At 42 years old, who knew I needed a stuffy, but I did. So, the morning of, I also had to wake up at 5 AM to do another shower where I'm scrubbing head to toe with a special antibacterial soap. And then I had a little mini surgery before the big one where this woman came in and inserted an arterial blood pressure sensor, and that was quite the epic experience. They came in at 7 AM, and they were like, we're ready for you. And then they proceeded to roll me what felt like a mile to the operating room.

Boots Knighton [:

And I want to spend a minute on that. When they came to get me to roll me into open heart surgery, I remember my husband didn't even know what to say, and I didn't even know what to say to him. Hear we had waited months, months for the surgery. Like I said, be sure to go back and listen to my story because it was epic. So, here the moment finally came, and we actually didn't know what to say to each other. You think you know what you're going to say in, like, the hardest moments, and then the hardest moments come, and it's just like the cat tied both our tongues up, and we couldn't say a thing to each other. He told me he did finally, like, get up out of a seat and come tell me he love me, and then off I went. But I remember this fear just washed over me. It was just, like, really happening. Like, this is actually really, really happening. And I had to keep saying that to myself. This is actually really happening. Like, I'm actually really about to have open heart surgery on purpose. Like, I'm choosing this. This makes no sense, but this is the only thing that makes sense because I can't breathe, and I can't function. But, oh my gosh, I am choosing to do this.

Boots Knighton [:

It was just such a strange conversation I had with myself. And as they rolled me down the hallway on this gurney, I'm watching the ceiling tiles go by, and I'm just counting them. I don't remember what number I reached now, but I just watched all these tiles go by. And I was like, there's another one. There's another one. There's another one. And then we get to the operating room, and they sit me outside the operating room and where I proceeded to, like, have to talk to the anesthesiologist and sign my life away with him. And then the surgeon brings me a piece of paper asking me to sign it acknowledging I could die. And then he leaves me alone and then I get to watch the most amazing sunrise over the Wasatch Range in Utah.

Boots Knighton [:

And that's where I'll let you listen to my TEDx Talk because the next 5 minutes were the most profound of my life. And then it was time to roll me in to open heart surgery, and it was so cold in there. No one prepared me for, like, how cold it was going to be. Like, it was so cold. And I'm on purpose looking at every single person in the room, and there were so many people in there. And I thanked each and every one of them for helping me. And then that's all I remember. I remember it was important to me to thank each and every person because what I had done prior to that day was I had already imagined all the people. Now I had no idea who it was going to be in the room with me, except I'd met the surgeon, but no one else. And I pictured all of them having their best days. I pictured all of them happy to be at work, happy to be helping me, being joyful in their job, being of good physical health, ready to meet me where I was at, and to bring me to the other side. That's what I did. Because what we don't talk about enough is when your chest is opened up and you're in the most vulnerable position you will ever be in, you are also vulnerable to everyone else's energy in that room. And I do believe we have the power to affect our futures. And Doctor Joe Dispenza is doing research on this, and he's proving it to be true.

Boots Knighton [:

Athletes visualize their outcomes in their sport. I did a whole episode on visualization in February. It really does work. And before heart surgery day came, I even visualized myself rolling into open heart surgery in the best shape I could be in. Mind, body, spirit. And I really do believe it helped. There are people who have a really rough recovery. Mine was not perfect by a long stretch, and it could have been a lot more imperfect. But everything you mentioned in that email, JS, I had all the same thoughts and feelings. And I know you're going to be working with a therapist. I'm so glad about that. EMDR, I can't shout enough about it from the mountain tops. It's how I also prepped for open heart surgery and how I've recovered. Because the unforeseen can happen, and it did for me when I needed 2 more surgeries. I know that's not going to happen for you. You're going to be fine with just one surgery. I know you will.

Boots Knighton [:

Faith gets us really far. And for me, faith isn't a religious thing. It's just I have full faith that everything is happening for me, that everything works out in my best interest, and it does always get better. I've been on this planet now. When you hear this episode, I just had a birthday. And so, I can now say I've been on this planet 46 years, and I know for sure that it always gets better.

Boots Knighton [:

So, I want to hear from you. Was this episode helpful? What else are you curious about with open heart surgery? What's working? What's not working? Let me know your stories. Again, email me at boots@theheartchamberpodcast.com. Thanks again to JS for your email. It meant the world to me, and I hope that this episode has been helpful for you. I love you. I believe in you. You can do this. Until next time.

Boots Knighton [:

Thank you for sharing a few heartbeats of your day with me today. Please be sure to follow or subscribe to this podcast wherever you are listening. Share with a friend who will value what we discussed. Go to either Apple Podcasts and write us a review or mark those stars on Spotify. I read these and your feedback is so encouraging and it also helps others find this podcast. Also, please feel free to drop me a note at boots@theheartchamberpodcast.com. I truly want to know how you're doing and if this podcast has been a source of hope, inspiration, and healing for you. Again, I am your host, Boots Knighton, and thanks for listening. Be sure to tune in next Tuesday for another episode of The Heart Chamber.

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