"You are Stronger than You Think"
It is safe to say that over the past 24 years, I have dealt with a fair share of bad news at the doctor’s office. Having been born with Pfeiffer Syndrome and a congenital heart defect, life has presented me with many challenges.
When it comes to coping with bad medical news, the one thing I have noticed is that my perspective has dramatically changed since I was a little girl. When you’re a child, the doctor's office is the last place you want to be. When the doctor comes in and talks about tests results and surgeries, you’re not really paying attention because your parents are doing that for you. When the doctor would give us bad news, these were the questions that I would ask:
- “Will I miss a lot of school?”
- “Will I still be able to go my friend’s birthday party?"
- “Will it hurt?”
- “How long will it be before I get to play with my friends again?”
Just before my 12th birthday, I found out I needed to have my shunt revised. Instead of being worried about the surgery, I remember asking the doctor, “Can we reschedule the surgery so I can have my birthday party first?” – As I look back on my childhood, it amazes me how ‘normal’ my life was, despite all my time spent at the hospital. No matter what I had to go through, I still wanted to play and hang out with my friends. I never wanted to miss too much school either.
As I got older, my ‘questions’ changed. I became more aware of what could go wrong during surgeries.When I would hear bad news from the doctor my main concern was ‘death.’ Instead of worrying about pain, missing school and activities with friends, the only thing I truly worried about was whether or not I would survive the surgery. The thing I feared most was dying.
November 26, 2009, is a day that I will never forget. I had my annual check up with my cardiologist. Every year I get an echocardiogram to make sure my heart is working fine. At 20 years old, I had already been through 2 open heart surgeries. When the cardiologist walked into the office, nothing could have prepared me for what he said next: “You need heart surgery.” I was in shock. Even though we were warned that someday I would need a 3rd open heart surgery, I didn't think it would happen until I was in my 30's or 40's. Even when doctors warn you in advance about future medical procedures, it is still surprising when the time actually comes. No matter how much you try to prepare for it, you can still experience shock and fear when you hear the news.
When we left the cardiologist’s office and got in my mom’s car I burst out crying. Suddenly it all hit me: the potential risks that come with open heart surgery. I was terrified. When you spend 20 years of your life going through so many medical procedures, you can’t help but think “How much more can my body handle?” - I asked myself “Is my body strong enough to go through a 3rd open heart surgery?”
Upon hearing the news, I had 4 months to prepare for the surgery. My emotions were like a roller coaster; had many ups and downs. There were so many ‘what if’ scenarios running through my mind, such as: “What if I don’t survive the surgery?” I often expressed my concerns with my family and friends. They would always reassure me that I was strong and that I could get through anything. It really helped to have them by side. However, deep down, I was still terrified. I started wishing I was a little kid again so that I wouldn't be so worried about what could go wrong.
The heart surgery was a success, but the recovery process was very slow and tough. It was also hard on my mom to see me in so much pain. She once said to me, “I just hate that you’re going through this! It’s not fair. You've been through enough!” – My response to her was “You know what mom? I am just so grateful to be alive! I may be having chest pains, but at least I’m still breathing! I am still HERE!” Suddenly, my perspective changed again. No matter how bad the days were and how slow the recovery was, at least I was still alive - I survived! The only thing I was then focused on was getting through each day, one step at a time.
My 3rd open heart surgery showed me that my body is strong and can handle just about anything. What I learned is that I have to trust everything happens for a reason and that I should not waste so much time thinking about the ‘what ifs.’ We cannot stop bad things from happening but what we can control is how we cope with it. I don’t know what the future holds for me, but what I do know is that if I’m ever faced with bad medical news again, I will try to remind myself: “You are stronger than you think. You can handle anything that life throws at you."