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Coping with Coronary Artery Disease



Coping With A Loved One’s Coronary Artery Disease

by Carla. D. Ledbetter


What's it like for the family when a loved one is diagnosed with coronary artery disease and undergoes a bypass operation? Carla Ledbetter explains in this first of a series of articles.


When my husband was first diagnosed with coronary artery disease at the age of forty, I felt like he’d been given an imminent death sentence. I’m no stranger to the devastation that heart disease can bring to families, having witnessed the death of my father from a heart attack when I was seventeen. My father was only forty-two years old when he died, and my husband’s father wasn’t that much older when he passed away from a heart attack.

Fortunately, for Jimmie (and thousands of other people), the diagnosis of coronary artery disease is no longer the death knell it used to be. With so many recent advances in medicine and surgical techniques, people with coronary artery disease can and are leading fairly normal lives. I know, because my husband is the living proof of this -- even after two heart attacks and two emergency quadruple by-pass operations, over the twelve years since he was originally diagnosed.

Firstly, it's useful to know something about the condition.

What is Coronary Artery Disease (also known as coronary heart disease or CHD)?

Everyone has narrow, tube-like arteries that channel the blood flow to their heart. The inside of these narrow arteries can sometimes get a build-up of a fatty substance called plaque. When enough plaque forms, the blood flow to the heart becomes constricted, which can lead to some very serious problems, including heart attacks.

There are many, many articles about Coronary Artery Disease available on the Internet.. One of the most useful sites I’ve found is the American Heart Association web site. To reach this site, simply type in:

What are the treatments for Coronary Artery Disease?

There are several types of treatments, including, but not limited to: lifestyle adjustments (changes in eating habits, exercise habits, etc.), cholesterol-lowering medication, coronary artery bypass surgery and balloon angioplasty.

Personal risk factors for heart disease may be increased if your family history shows that relatives, especially close relatives, have died from the disease, and dietary changes often reduce the risk.

What happens when a loved one goes through a coronary bypass operation?

When my husband underwent his first bypass operation we had absolutely no idea what to expect. Although the surgeon and cardiologists explained all the technical aspects of the operation, they didn’t tell us about the emotional side effects, which were almost as devastating as the disease itself. I found myself much more able to help him (and me) handle the stress of his second bypass operation, simply because we both knew what physical and emotional symptoms to expect. His recovery from the second operation was less stressful - for both of us.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned to expect when someone undergoes a bypass operation:

  • A very long wait during surgery. There is an agonizingly long wait when someone undergoes this kind of surgery. It is, by far, one of the worst parts of the entire process. The best advice I can give you is to ask the nurses to keep you posted on developments. I was very lucky in that the nurses were able to tell me which stage of the operation my husband was in as it evolved. Unfortunately, not every hospital is able to do this, so be sure to check to see how often you can get updates on the patient’s condition
  • After the operation is over, the surgeon will come out and talk to you and explain what kind of problems/successes they had during the surgery. Please remember that one of the most critical times for the patient is immediately after the surgery, where everyone, including the doctors and surgeons, are waiting to see if any complications are going to develop

When you finally get to see your loved one in the recovery area, don’t be alarmed to find:

  • Many, many tubes and intravenous lines connected to them. Every single wire, intravenous line or drainage tube is there for a purpose. It’s a terrible sight, but at least it won’t be so much of a shock if you know beforehand what they are going to look like. The patient will be hooked up to several different monitors, and each screen above them monitors a different vital sign. The lights on the screens will be flashing on and off, and several monitors might be beeping when you walk in. Don’t panic when you see or hear this. Believe me, if your loved one was in the middle of a medical crisis, they would not let you in to see them!
  • The patient will be almost as pale as a ghost and their skin and hands will feel very, very cold to the touch. This is normal and to be expected. Their body temperature will gradually be restored to normal, but it can’t be done all at once.
  • A breathing tube will have been inserted in their throat, so they won’t be able to speak. It looks terrible, but they need this breathing tube at this point. About this time you may lose your cool. I know I nearly lost it when I saw Jimmie in this kind of shape. Perhaps the best piece of advice I can offer is that your loved one needs to hear your voice and know that you are there for them. Don’t let them see how frightened you are. You need to be strong - for them and for yourself. Please remind them not to try to talk, tell them you love them, and squeeze their fingers for reassurance.
  • By this time the cardiac intensive care nurse should be telling you that you need to leave. Leaving that room is one of the most difficult things you have to do, but it really is for the best. The intensive care nurses will be monitoring for any change in condition.
  • Expect a long recovery period. Even though Jimmie was released from the hospital a week after his operation, it took him quite a long time to recover. He was in a lot of pain when he got home, and we ended up buying a super-padded recliner for him to sit/sleep in. (It hurt for him to lay down in our bed or sit in any of our other chairs). The recliner gave him the ability to elevate his legs when he needed to (we shoved pillows under his legs), and the padded back allowed him to relax.
  • Note: You might want to check ahead and find out what kind of tape/plaster your hospital uses for surgical patients. Patients who undergo bypass operations have a long incision in their leg (where they take the artery out for use in the operation), and my husband developed a severe allergy to the tape they used on his leg incision. If you can find out beforehand that the patient is allergic to the tape the hospital uses, they might be able to use another kind.
  • Be prepared for a change in personality/mood swings. For a lot of people, it's as if their entire world has collapsed around them, and they sometimes suffer from depression, anxiety attacks, etc. They are frustrated at their helplessness, worried that their bypass might produce problems once they get home and start moving around (or the op has not worked correctly), concerned about their artery disease progressing beyond help, etc. The best advice I can give you is to be patient. Remind them that this surgery probably saved their life.. Help them take an optimistic view toward their surgery, not a pessimistic one. Remind them that this will help them in their recovery. If this doesn’t work, talk to their doctor about the emotional problems they are going through. He (or she) may be able to prescribe something to help. .
  • From this point forward, you and the patient must be ever vigilant. Routine doctor visits and blood tests are extremely important for the patient, as he/she must now monitor their cholesterol and a host of other risk factors on a routine basis. The patient will need to follow their doctor’s advice (even when it’s not what they want to hear), as this will help them to prevent further damage to their arteries.
  • Last, but certainly not the least, please do thank the many doctors, nurses, and hospital workers who did everything they could to help your loved one recover from this operation and get back on the road to recovery. They are the true heroes of our time. Without their selfless desire to dedicate their lives to helping others, your loved one (and mine) might not be here today.

Some useful references

UMHS – What is Coronary Artery Disease?
University of Michigan Health System, 1500 E. Medical Center Drive, Ann Arbour, MI 48109
copyright 2000 University of Michigan Health System
U-M Medical School

Look out for more insights from Carla Ledbetter on
how she coped with her husband's illness.
You might also like to read Carla's article about her experience in becoming an author of electronic books.



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