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DEBRA HALE-SHELTON: Questions that needed answers

by Debra Hale-Shelton | February 9, 2020 at 1:52 a.m.

I leaned back in the comfortable chair, looked out the window, and silently admired the leafless sweetgum tree. The scene reminded me of the opening in Christmas in Connecticut except it wasn't Christmas, and I wasn't in Connecticut.

There was more: a large sticker saying, "Window is sealed and will not open." A few steps to the left, a form-fitted bedpan and other bathroom supplies adorned the shelves. Above them sat a book: the Holy Bible--supplied by the Gideons.

Like it or not, I was beginning my second stay at Arkansas Heart Hospital where I had just undergone the second of two open-heart surgeries within about two weeks of each other. I had bypass surgery as well as an ablation and another procedure aimed at regulating heart rhythm.

While hospitalized, I learned a few things. Or maybe I was just reminded of them.

• Nurses and aides are the ones working the hardest to keep the place going and to keep patients alive. You may encounter one or two nurses with poor manners--like the one who told me, "You're not even trying," as I failed to breathe strongly enough to please her. Or you may run into the likes of a young nurse's aide named Crystal and suddenly feel as if you're a rock star headed to the Grammys.

Somehow, Crystal--tall, short-haired, with more than a few tattoos on her arms--learned that I am a writer. While she had never read my work to my knowledge, she announced that I'd led "an amazing life" and had more interesting experiences ahead. Her congratulatory words when she'd see me taking an incredibly slow walk in the hospital hallways made me smile, even as I battled the depression that so often accompanies heart-surgery recovery.

• Be patient. Otherwise, anxiety will take over as you wait for someone to help you with such menial tasks as going to the restroom, moving back from the restroom to bed, getting a nausea pill, coping with bedsores, covering your behind as you walk down a hallway with the less-than-fashionable standard-issue hospital gown, or stopping the bleeping IV machine from bleeping.

• Avoid surprises. If, for instance, your physician's nurse calls you one day before surgery to advise that the surgeon is no longer working there, do not agree to a stand-in or backup lineman without adequate information.

While my new surgeon may have been as good or better than my original one, patients should get time to meet the doctor who's going to carve open their chests. As a result, I knew virtually nothing about Surgeon No. 2 and did not talk with him until after the nonemergency operation.

• Ask questions. Don't settle for evasive answers from a doctor any more than a reporter should from a presidential candidate. Case in point: Shortly before my surgery, I had read an article about a much-anticipated study's findings that invasive procedures such as bypass surgery and stent insertion were no more effective than pills and lifestyle improvements. I asked Surgeon No. 1 about this. His response was that he and other cardiologists had sat around a table laughing when they heard about the study's results.

Laughing about what? The study's findings, its methodology, its accuracy? I did not pursue any followup questions and had no idea of all the risks involved when nurses wheeled me into the operating room about 6 a.m. Jan. 9. It never crossed my mind that I might fracture my sternum if I fell after my first surgery, or that I couldn't stay at home alone after the hospital released me,

I'm not a big Bernie Sanders fan, but I now see why the Democratic presidential hopeful opted for stent insertion over bypass surgery: A simpler fix for a man who's 78, especially one who doesn't want a long recovery time, might also have been a more practical solution for me. But I never investigated the matter enough to know.

I'm still in rehabilitation, still absorbing the events of recent weeks. I may forget my doctor's name, but I won't forget two nurses: Crystal and another young woman who smiled and held a hand out to me the day I first left the hospital.

I don't know that nurse's name, but I'd recognize her smile anywhere.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

Editorial on 02/09/2020


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