After I had a heart device placed inside me, I felt like a monster during my recovery. During the first week after the pacemaker implantation, I found it almost impossible to look at the collarbone area above my chest without cringing. I felt like I was ready for the next Halloween costume party.
First, you could see the outlines of the device directly underneath my skin. To me, it seemed to produce a lump that looked like a computer mouse (hence the reference to "pet mouse Igor"). It also seemed to me that the lump swelled out about two inches from my skin, although now I realize that this was a bit of an exaggeration. And there was this incision that had left what to me seemed like an enormous, raised scar (hence the reference to the Bride of Frankenstein because she had jagged scars). I felt like a freak of nature – but a grateful freak of nature. After all, this device was keeping my heart beating regularly, so even if I had to be wrapped like a mummy in duct tape to make it stay inside me, it would have been worth it.
I tried to avoid wearing clothes that provided even the slightest view of the scar and the pacemaker. I am well known for having a closet full of outfits. This always resulted in a fair share of comments about my addiction to fashion. In my defense, I had carefully shopped over a 30-year career to purchase a professional wardrobe filled with classic clothes that would remain in style. And as you may have guessed, I exercised so much that I did not have to worry about outgrowing my outfits. Ironically, it seemed that I had finally reached a point in time when many of my friends and family members saw the beauty of having a well-stocked clothing wardrobe to accommodate my new pacemaker accessory!
An acquaintance who was an occupational therapist made some suggestions about some creams and lotions that might heal and lessen the projection of the scar on my collar bone. I tried these, but with such fair skin, I concluded that I would be bearing the marks of the implantation for a long time to come. It took a few months but I finally decided if I could live with and view the scar, others could too.
When I returned to work, I did not have to worry that I would become absent-minded and raise my arms above shoulder level for the first month. Whenever it looked like I might begin to move my arms too enthusiastically, one of my colleagues would cry out “Mel, keep your arms down.” It was nice to have someone (in addition to me) remaining vigilant during the healing period.
I began to see a cardiac team a few months after the pacemaker was implanted. The cardiologist and the cardiac nurse were both colleagues of the electrophysiologist who implanted my pacemaker. As was the case with the electrophysiologist, I found them to be outstanding medical professionals, and empathetic and personable. The phrase "I feel like I died and went to heaven", in terms of medical care, has special significance here. This is because thankfully, I didn’t have to die to find an answer to my problem and extremely diligent medical care to treat it.
My cardiac team encouraged me to remain as active as I could without overwhelming myself. They prescribed some relatively low doses of heart medications. They also gave me materials discussing salt reduction, and some of the worst examples of things I could eat. They also told me to limit my fluid intake to no more than 64 fluid ounces a day.
I think I have already mentioned how disciplined I am with diet and exercise. I felt like I had been given a new lease on life with the pacemaker and the medications to treat my heart damage. So I made a commitment to keep walking and exercising as much as I could, to keep track of my fluid intake, and to go cold turkey on salt. I have to admit the salt thing was the hardest for me because I did have a tendency to over salt my food. The joke in my family was that I would put salt on salt.
At the time the pacemaker was implanted, I was provided with a device that would monitor my pacemaker through my telephone land line. It was comforting to know that someone was checking on a regular basis to make sure my device was working properly. I was also told to monitor my weight, and that if my weight rose 2 pounds within a day or 5 pounds within a week, I needed to seek advice from my cardiac team. This was because the weight gain would suggest that I was retaining water. This would impede proper heart function and would cause shortness of breath.
Of course, as colleagues started learning about my pacemaker, I would hear about people that they knew who also had heart issues. One colleague told me that his friend had a defibrillator. He said that his friend told him that the only way that his doctors could check to make sure the defibrillator was in proper working order was to activate it. I wasn't sure whether this was an urban legend rather than the truth, but I was happy that I only had a pacemaker.
As I became more positive about my heart health, and as the dizziness disappeared, I also began to let go of the job and started to welcome retirement. In fact, I had to. There was so much to do in such a short time before the retirement date that I could not waste a moment in my countdown to retirement. My biggest priority was to pack up my office and leave it in good order for whoever replaced me. This was no easy chore for someone who had worked for the same place, although in different capacities, for 30 years.
One plus side for packing up my work life was that it was fun to look through all the evidence of my career and remember the various signposts along the way. Perhaps a sign of my age, or maybe memory loss caused by my heart failure, but some of the signposts were for events and accomplishments I could barely recall. It had been a long career!
I was looking forward to my retirement event. It wasn’t a costume affair, but I would make sure that I brought the Bride of Frankenstein and her pet mouse Igor along with me!
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.