As part of having open heart surgery, the way doctors get access to your heart is roughly like this:
- Your chest is cut open. This is known as a sternotomy and is usually 6-8 inches long.
- The breastbone is cut.
- Your rib cage is pulled apart.
- Full access is now gained to your heart.
Whilst there are other processes involved and there are now minimally invasive options for a few heart surgeries, this is historically how it’s been done, is still the standard and is how all of mine have been done.
One of the additional processes is that you are generally hooked up to a heart lung machine. Simplistically, this is used in the following way:
- A tube will be placed in your heart to drain blood to the machine.
- The machine will remove carbon dioxide from your blood, add oxygen to your blood, and then pump the blood back into your body.
One of the challenges confronting many people post open heart surgery is known as postperfusion syndrome aka pump head. A quick Google search defines this as:
Postperfusion syndrome, also known as “pumphead”, is a constellation of neurocognitive impairments attributed to cardiopulmonary bypass (CPB) during cardiac surgery.
Put simply, its memory loss.
There is plenty of discussion out there around if it exists or not, but I am a firm believer that it exists. My memory was quite poor after 2011 and my memory loss post 2014 surgery is very obvious to many people I come in contact with and it’s very frustratingly obvious to me. So much of the last year is gone from my memory.
I actually call the moments of memory loss, my “zucchini moments”. This is because I stood at the fruit shop in 2012 for what seemed like an eternity, willing myself to remember what the vegetable was that I was looking at. Turns out it was a zucchini.
There’s a fair amount of physical pain that goes along with open heart surgery, but there are these neurological problems, as well as many documented cases of mental health challenges post-surgery.
So when you see that little bit of open heart surgery scar that sits at the top of peoples shirts, please remember that the battle may not just be physical.