Adventures in fitness: Recovering from surgery

July 31, 2018 GMT

In February, I had open heart surgery to repair a mitral valve and have a bypass. It’s an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

I’d had a series of tests the previous fall to find out why I was getting so short of breath when I exercised. They revealed a prolapsed valve and — surprise! — an artery that was 85 percent blocked. The relatively non-invasive surgery I’d hoped for turned out to be a seven-hour operation, followed by a month of recuperation. Fortunately for me, I was physically fit going into it, which had a positive impact on my recovery.

For the past decade, I’d been doing boot camp and Crossfit classes three times a week like clockwork (later adding running and swimming) so I had good core strength and strong legs. That was a definite plus. Have you ever tried getting out of bed or off the couch without using your arms? That’s when my strong muscles came in handy.


I spent a week in the hospital, and right away the nurses wanted me up and walking around the ward. At first, I hobbled down the hall holding onto a rolling walker as my husband pulled my oxygen tank behind us. After a couple spins around the ward, I was able to ditch the walker and hobble more briskly while holding onto his arm. The nurses were surprised and pleased that I was able to move around so well.

I don’t want to make it sound like if you’re in good shape recovery from heart surgery will be a breeze. It certainly helps, but there were other issues I had to deal with. After I got home, I was on oxygen for two weeks until my red blood count remained in the 90s. And the effects of anesthesia stayed in my system for almost as long. Nothing tasted good, no matter how much I craved it. I ended up losing 15 pounds.

The first week I was home, all I could do was go from bed to couch and back to bed. I felt like I’d been run over by a truck and I napped several times a day. I wasn’t even interested in binge watching “Breaking Bad” like I’d planned. I was weak and barely did any of the physical therapy exercises they sent home with me.

During the second week, I gained more range of motion and strength. After that, my recovery seemed to progress quickly.

Four weeks post-op I had a follow-up with my surgeon’s nurse and was told because of my prior fitness level I could skip cardiac rehab and go back to my normal activities. The sternum was healed and nothing, she said, could hurt it. I’ve eased back into Crossfit, running and swimming but I think it will be close to year’s end before I’m fully recovered.

Having major surgery and putting my life on hold for a month was a humbling experience and I’m truly grateful for the positive outcome. It’s made me realize how fortunate I am: I have good health overall and the ability and opportunity to be active. Most importantly, I don’t have a chronic health problem that prevents me from living my life the way I want to.