How to act after your heart attack

For night terrors on business trips, call the hotel front desk and don’t flaunt your meds
Julia McKinnell
How to act after your heart attack
Chris Rogers/Corbis

Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams would be wise to say as little as possible about his heart surgery and recovery, according to advice in a new book on how to cope with the emotional after-effects of heart surgery through an “eight-step Cardiac Comeback Plan.”

“One day I was strong. The next day I was weak. One day my colleagues looked up to me. The next day they seemed to see me as weak and ‘damaged,’ ” writes Dr. Marc Wallack in Back to Life After a Heart Crisis. Wallack is a New York surgical oncologist who had a quadruple bypass. “Only tell people about your heart disease on a need-to-know basis,” he advises. “You do not need people talking about you while you are trying to recover. You do not need people using the details of your illness for their own personal gain.”

Before going into the hospital, pack the following, he suggests: slip-on shoes, bathrobe, baseball cap and sunglasses. “After being indoors that long, the glare of the sun can be uncomfortable, and you don’t need anything else to make you uncomfortable during that long, hard walk from the hospital door to your waiting car. You might also want to bring a puffy jacket, such as a ski jacket.” The jacket isn’t for warmth, “but to protect your tender incision area and prevent other people from getting too close to you.”

Expect night terrors in the hospital and later at home, he warns. “I knew that I needed at least seven hours of shut-eye for my chest, breastbone, and vessels to heal. Yet I couldn’t find the courage to close my eyes. Every time I closed my eyes, I felt as if I was losing control. I worried I would not wake up again. This went on night after night after night.”

He recommends leaving the blinds open in your bedroom at night. “During those initial fearful nights, I could not sleep in a dark room. If I woke to darkness, I would think, ‘Have I died?’ ”

Six months after surgery, Wallack, on a business trip and in a hotel, still felt terrified. He suggests calling the front desk. “Arrange two wake-up calls spaced 15 minutes apart with these instructions. ‘If I do not answer by the second call, please send someone to my room to check on me.’ If you wake in the middle of the night and feel scared, call the front desk and ask an innocuous question. I often ask, ‘What time is it?’ I don’t need to know the time. I just need to hear a voice and know that I am not alone.”

Ask a loved one to oversee your medication, he says. Wallack’s twice-daily dose of OxyContin took away his chest pain “but it also removed my emotional pain. It made me high.” He credits his wife for stepping in and interrupting his dependence. “[My wife] saw me take two OxyContins and asked, ‘Are you in pain?’ I replied, ‘Not right now! Right now, I have no pain at all.’ She said sarcastically, ‘I bet you don’t. This has got to stop.’ ” She gathered up the rest of my pain meds and flushed them down the toilet.”

Wallack also “feared the great outdoors,” he writes in a chapter on the importance of getting dressed each day, and getting outside for the first post-operation walk. “Would someone jostle me, and if so, would I lose my balance? Would I trip over something? Would everyone stare at me?”

Pick a short, flat initial route, and don’t walk alone, he advises. “The slightest incline can seem like Mount Everest during the initial weeks after surgery. You want your first walk to make you feel successful and strong, so pick something you know you can do.”

For six weeks, Wallack had no appetite: “I lost 15 lb. in just two weeks,” he writes, “and more in the weeks that followed.” When you don’t have an appetite, “the last thing you want to eat for dinner is some sort of heart-healthy salad with wild salmon on top. So don’t even try. Just get sustenance into your body in whatever form works, even if it’s not the healthiest option around.”

Once back at work, “Find an inconspicuous way to store and take your meds. That way, you won’t have to worry about people seeing all those medicine bottles and wondering if you are still sick.”

Ultimately, “consider making changes in your current job or finding a new job,” he writes, “but don’t give up on working.” Wallack writes that he’s “counselled many survivors who decide not to work at all. Don’t consider this as an option if you don’t have to, especially if you believe your career defined you before your health crisis. You may not go back to your original job, but you do need to find something that improves your confidence and self-worth.”