PSA: The Scar

I have a big scar on my chest. It is still red and expands into a silver dollar-sized circle at the top. I would have to wear turtle necks every single day to hide it, so you are probably going to notice it. That is fine.

Here is what you should do when you notice it:

1. Stop looking.
Okay, you saw it. Not stop being creepy. At this point you are just staring at my breasts.

2. Don’t ask questions.
There are a few exceptions to this one. It is okay to ask about my scar if you are:

  1. a child
  2. mentally disabled
  3. sporting a similar scar
  4. facing surgery that will result in the same scar
  5. an acquaintance I haven’t seen since before surgery (although at this point, that is unlikely)
  6. a new friend

3. Smile and move along.
The smile is optional, but I’m a southerner so let’s assume you will smile.

And done! Now, wasn’t that easy?

Look, it is great that you grandma had open heart surgery, came through it all okay, and has a similar scar . . . but I just don’t care. You are a stranger. Plus, I just told you it wasn’t heart surgery when you so rudely inquired into my medical health. The fact that your memaw* had clogged arteries doesn’t make us bosom buddies.

*It is almost always a memaw when I end up in these situations. Wonder if that is significant?

I tried to take a good photo of my scar to share with you all, but it ended up being mostly boobs and I just don’t want to share that here. I’ll leave you with Tina Fey instead.


My median sternotomy and thymectomy: Part V – Home

When I was preparing for the surgery, my surgeon explained that I would not have as much pain and difficulty since I was young. At first, I couldn’t understand why I was in so much pain and getting passed in the hallway by elderly patients with their iv poles. A little talk with the nurses (with the exception of one dud, I liked all of my nurses), cleared up the confusion a bit. They explained that while my recovery period would like be a breeze in comparison to elderly patients, their experiences over the years pointed towards more pain for younger patients post-surgery. One older nurse in particular told me that she often had 80 year-old patients just needing Tylenol when they left the hospital and 30 year-old patients leaving with strong prescriptions. Gee, thanks surgeon. You could have explained a little better.

I left the hospital with hydrocodone and I needed to take it pretty much every four hours consistently. The drive home was similar to any surgery – bumps were painful, but I made it. I wasn’t able to sit on my couch when I first got home; it is a low, modern sectional and I couldn’t get back up off it at first without pain. My husband moved a recliner from the little man’s room into the living room and it became my seat, dining room table, and bed for the next few days.

Sleeping flat was still out of the question when I came home. If I ended up “too flat” (and that changed from day to day), I had pain from the pulling on my incision, interior pain, and the sensation that I had a big metal plate sitting on my chest. I didn’t sleep well, but I slept a lot. At first, the pain meds knocked me out. Then they started to give me insomnia (not to mention constipation) and my sleep schedule somewhat flipped. After a little bit in the recliner, I moved onto my couch, but still propped up into a leaning position. All I wanted to do was curl up on my side or – better yet! – on my stomach. I was stuck on my back for a month before I started to have a little more flexibility in sleeping positions. Even when I could sleep in a flatter position and moved back into my bed, it was helpful to elevate my arms a bit so they didn’t pull at my incision.

I could not do anything for myself. Not anything. I wasn’t allowed to lift anything heavier than five pounds. I don’t know if you have noticed, but everything is heavier than five pounds. I think my peppermint mocha this morning may have been heavier than five pounds. Need a glass of milk? Ask someone. Need to open a heavy door? Ask someone. Need to open a tough jar? Ask someone. Feel like you are useless and want to do some chores? Too bad, sit back down.

Range of motion was also a problem. I couldn’t really stretch to pick anything up or put on my clothes. I left the hospital without my compression bra on, but it only took a couple of hours to realize that was a mistake (again, boobs are heavy). I had my husband help me into a sports bra. It is pretty difficult for another person to put a piece of tight clothing on you when you can’t put your arms up hardly any. Even when my range of motion improved, I kept getting stuck in situations I couldn’t get out of. One night, I tried to put on this tight long sleeved shirt. I got stuck. Even though I could put on other shirts by myself, I didn’t have the strength to stretch the shirt onto my arms. Go figure. I put my socks on by myself two weeks post-surgery. It was a facebook-worthy moment.

I also got out of the house for the first time two weeks post-surgery. That was the first time I felt comfortable riding in the car. My pillow stayed with me at all times for coughing, getting up, and difficult movements. Eventually, I picked out a nicer small pillow that I didn’t mind carrying around in public. It is still on my couch today. When I felt more comfortable leaving the house, fatigue was a big problem. I had to carefully plan so I wouldn’t get stuck in the back of Wal-Mart without the strength to keep going.

During recovery, I had regular appointments with my surgeon. At the first appointment I had an x-ray to make sure the bone was healing properly. Since everything looked okay, this was the only post-surgery x-ray I needed. Aside from that, the appointments were mostly to check my incision and to make sure I was doing enough activities, but not too many activities. Delicate balance and all.

Speaking of the incision – my scar is right in the middle of my chest and starts a couple of inches above my boobs. It is about eight inches long with three small spots underneath from the drains. It is not pretty. Overall, my scar spread and is wider than expected. Also, the very top of my incision did not heal properly. It scabbed over and the scab fell off early revealing a dent. It looked like someone put their thumb on my chest, pressed down and rotated into a circle. Basically, it was still healing, but now had to steal from the bottom up. When I got out of the shower in the morning, I had to lean over to let the water run out of it. I wore a band aid over it until it was completely healed. Now the top of my scar spreads into a quarter-sized circle. I may decide to see a plastic surgeon about it in the future.

I went back to work after two months, although I did work a few hours a week at home for a couple of weeks first. I still couldn’t pick much up and the fatigue was a problem, but it was nice to be back to normal.

One year post surgery: My scar is still slightly red. My sternum stopped hurting when I coughed/sneezed/hiccupped/twisted my body about six months ago. It stopped aching when the weather changed about two months ago and now only does it occasionally. I still have some soreness with the muscles in my upper chest and shoulders, but this is likely more about my scoliosis and the surgery instead of just the surgery.

This time last year

Just a little over a year ago (on June 11, 2012 to be exact), I was sitting at my desk at work minding my own business when everything went a little wonky. I had just returned from a wonderful 10-anniversary road trip with my husband and my mind wasn’t quite back into the regular working flow yet.

There I was, just sitting quietly while daydreaming about being back up in the Rocky Mountains when a sharp pain shot across my chest. This was immediately followed by my heart racing at an alarming speed – I have an irregular heartbeat and take a medication to regulate it, so my heart randomly racing is quite a feat. The whole episode only lasted 2 minutes or so and I felt completely normal after, but very freaked out. Since I do have the irregular heartbeat, I take anything to do with that area very seriously. I called my doctor, but she wasn’t able to see me that day. Then I called my husband and we decided to head to the emergency room.

Once at the emergency room, everything checked out okay – the monitors all looked good, the EKG looked good, the chest x-ray looked good. Since we had just returned from the road trip, the doctor sent me for a CT scan to check for a blood clot. Thankfully, no blood clot. In the end, the episode was determined to be a fluke. As I was preparing to leave with orders to follow-up with my regular physician, the doctor off-handedly mentioned an “extra piece” on my thymus that would probably need to be monitored in the future.

Well, okay. I have an extra piece. I wasn’t worried about that – I was worried about the weird episode of a few hours early.

Two days later, I followed up with my regular doctor. She is awesome. She agreed it was probably just a fluke, but increased my regular medicine and sent me for a halter monitor just in case (in the end, everything turned out fine in the heart area). Then she escalated the situation with the “extra piece.” The “extra piece” was now rare “mass” that she really didn’t know how to best monitor. She made me an appointment with a well-regarded vascular surgeon for the following week, adding “he might just want to go ahead and remove it” as I left the office.

Okay, freaked out again, but still relatively minor. A c-section is the only surgery I have ever had – I’ve never even broken a bone! – so this kind of stuff easily worries me.

The vascular surgeon was wonderful, but as soon as the appointment started it was clearly going in a direction I did not expect. My “extra piece” turned “mass” was now a “tumor.” He went over the CT scan with me and talked about where it was located and why it was a concern. He also talked about this kind of tumor only being malignant in less than 5% of cases. He wrote everything down for me so I could google the correct terms (this doc knows his patients!). Then he dropped the bombshell – because of the location of the thymus (right in-between the heart and sternum), I would need to see a cardiothoracic surgeon. A heart surgeon. I went from a silly little extra piece to a heart surgeon in one week.

Now I was upset. I made it outside before I started to cry, but just barely.

A week and a half later I was in the next surgeon’s office and, yes, the tumor needed to come out. He talked about all sorts of details and explanations, but I sort of zoned-out through a lot of it (luckily, I had brought my husband with me). He wanted to go ahead and get it scheduled, but I put the brakes on pretty fast. I needed time to process.

I was sort of hoping someone would change their mind in the interim.

[If you have read any of the pervious posts on the blog, you know that they did not.]

The Scar

I have a very large scar on my chest from my surgery in December. It starts in the center of my chest and runs down just to the end of my bra – about eight inches total. It is slightly crooked at the bottom. The top of the scar bubbles out into a red circle about the size of a quarter. This section appears differently because it didn’t heal like the rest of the scar.

I have exactly one piece of clothing [not counting scarves] that will cover the scar. In other words, every single day I take my scar out into the big, bad world.

I haven’t accepted it as part of me yet.

People stare a lot and sometimes they ask questions. The questions range from morbid curiosity to concern to looking for a connection. Only the curiosity questions really bother me much. For a while I had a large Band-Aid at the top of the scar covering the part that was still healing. Nothing says, “Look at me! Something happened!,” like a big Band-Aid in the middle of your chest.

The main problem with my scar however, is not the staring or questions. It is my perception of the staring. The actual number of people who become preoccupied with my scar is relatively small, but I continuously inflate this number in mind. When I’m talking to people – strangers, acquaintances, friends, etc. – I can’t help but wonder if they are paying attention to me or thinking about my scar. This is particularly bad when I’m in a professional setting.

This is not helpful. For someone who tends to pull away from social situations anyway, it is starting to become a pretty big hindrance. It allows me to fall right back into my typical routine, to justify my tendency to withdraw and avoid. A little bit of research confirms that I am not alone in this feeling – countless studies have verified that people with some sort of visible “issue” tend to project awkward feelings into their interactions.

I wish I had some sort of uplifting end to this blog post. Some solution or grand plan. But I don’t. I’m sure the first step is finding a way to accept the scar in my own mind, but that seems pretty damn impossible right now.