Jane Isaacson Got Over Her Fear of Heart Surgery
“I am fortunate and trying to be as positive as I can be about my future. After all, I am still here and have no intention of giving up without a fight!”
1. When were you diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma?
I was diagnosed and received treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma in 1978. I was well aware of the possible late effects and always made sure I stayed right on top of the annual checkups I needed. When my sister-in-law, Anita, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s the same year as me, passed away due to complications from coronary artery disease, I decided that, as a precaution, I should ask my cardiologist to perform some additional tests. I’d had annual Holter monitor and echo stress tests for a few years.
Apart from some breathlessness when walking up steps and hills, I had no symptoms. My cardiologist protested that I was overreacting, and further testing wasn’t necessary, but he subsequently ordered a CT scan that showed my arteries were severely narrowed and clogged. An angiogram then revealed my right coronary artery was 99% blocked. Fortunately, I was able to have a stent inserted during the same procedure.
2. Did that take care of the problem?
It did for a while. I was taking extra-strong statins to limit the radiation-induced atherosclerosis (coronary artery disease). Unfortunately, two years later the stent had completely closed over, and my left coronary was 70% blocked. Various cardiologists told me that further stenting was too risky. The overwhelming advice was to undergo coronary artery bypass surgery.
I have to be honest: I flew into one hell of a crazy panic. I couldn’t get my head around this turn of events. Even though I had suffered from my share of late effects, this seemed to be in another realm. Had I known at the time how truly routine such a bypass operation had become, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so traumatized.
3. How did you prepare for the surgery?
I couldn’t really dispel the fear, despite the many wonderful people on the Facebook page for Hodgkins Lymphoma/Disease Survival & Late Effects 1960-early 2000s. They provided reassurance, support and much-valued advice, including the comment that the operation, although a big one, was oh-so routine. I just didn’t believe them!
4. Did you find a surgeon you felt confident about?
I live in Granada, Spain, so I selected a surgeon in Malaga, which is nearby. He came recommended by Spanish friends who said he had extensive experience performing heart surgery. I knew that radiated tissue reacts differently; there can be additional complications. My surgeon told me not to fear the operation, but to see it as a solution to be embraced. He said he was accustomed to dealing with fibrosis in irradiated patients and that, in a worst-case scenario, my surgery might be longer if he wasn’t able to use the internal mammary artery—which is more durable than other blood vessels—as the graft for my coronary arteries.
5. What happened after your surgery?
When I awoke in the ICU, I felt surprisingly pain-free but overwhelmingly tired. The worst part was over; it turned out they had been able to use my mammary artery, and there hadn’t been too much bleeding. In fact, things had gone incredibly smoothly. Now I needed to concentrate on getting better.
A day later, the nurses were offering me food, which provoked strong feelings of nausea. I just wasn’t ready. But two days after that, I was sitting up in a chair, and three days later, I was making my way to the bathroom to wash myself. I was truly amazed at how quickly things were moving. Next, I went to a “normal” ward and the very next day, I was discharged. My hospital stay had gone by in a whirl, and I was on to the next stage in the adventure. I would recuperate at home.
I won’t lie: the operation was no walk in the park, and recovery was mighty slow. But nonetheless, it was steady and relatively pain-free. I developed fluid on my lungs due to operational trauma, which was treated with diuretics. This is pretty common after heart surgery, but it made me breathless, unhappy when exerting myself and uncomfortable when lying horizontal.
6. Overall, the outcome of your surgery was successful, correct?
Yes, and I’m even proud of my two scars: the one down my front, which now joins with the one that marks the removal of my spleen when the Hodgkin’s was first diagnosed. That was the mother of all scars! The other one is on my leg where they took my saphenous vein. I participated in a cardiac rehabilitation program, which helped me get back to my life again. I am fortunate and trying to be as positive as I can about my future. After all, I am still here and have no intention of giving up without a fight!
Every one of our featured survivors has something unique to share. From diagnosis to treatment to life after treatment, their experiences with Hodgkin lymphoma convey insight and offer inspiration. We are grateful to each of these individuals for their willingness to share their story.