Recuperating From Heart Surgery: An 8-Step Comeback Plan

Surgeon Marc Wallack's severe depression after heart surgery and how he and his wife Jamie Colby coped.

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Step 3: Get out, even if only to the supermarket. It took three weeks for Wallack to leave his New York City apartment after his surgery, and when he finally did he was mistaken for his wife's elderly father because he looked so frail and sickly. Still, he writes, after getting back from that outing, he had confidence to go on another. He recommends preparing by first visualizing the experience and reminding yourself that those first social interactions are bound to be a challenge.

Step 4: Plan for doctor's appointments. Each doctor's visit filled Wallack with fear that he would fail his cardiac stress test or have a scan that would detect new blockages. But after emerging from several without problems, the appointments became easier to bear. He also learned to call his cardiologist whenever he was concerned about a medical issue like his heart beating too rapidly after climbing a flight of stairs. And to keep Wallack's spirits up, Colby accompanied him to his initial appointments and privately asked the doctor to make at least one positive comment during every visit.

[ 5 Questions to Ask Your Doctor Before You Fill That Prescription] Step 5: Don't ignore the sex issues. Wallack admits that he worried about dying during sex and that he wouldn't have the physical strength to perform. Colby was also scared about her husband's wellbeing and whether she'd feel desire for him in his weak and frail state. The two took things slowly, she writes, starting first with just cuddling and caressing with candlelight and music before trying the real thing. Getting your doctor's OK to have sex after surgery is important, but so too is sharing your fears with your loved one.

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Step 6: Learn to trust food again. Doughnuts and fried bacon used to be among Wallack's favorite foods, but now he rarely eats sweets or junk food. His fears of having more heart problems serve as an effective deterrent. Still, he initially had to overcome his worry that any bit of dietary fat, even the small amount in chicken soup, would clog his arteries; in fact, he had no appetite for weeks following his surgery and as a result his weight dropped to 140 pounds on his 6-foot frame. Relaxation exercises like deep breathing helped him get through those first small meals. He also used meal replacements like Ensure to provide extra calories. But what really helped, he said, was simply talking a leisurely walk to his favorite restaurant, which calmed his anxiety and helped rebuild his appetite. Now he visualizes how the nutritious foods he eats—fruits, vegetables, fish—are helping his heart. And whenever he's tempted to eat a hot dog or cheeseburger, he imagines the fat from the food collecting on his blood vessels—a sure-fire way to kill the temptation.

Step 7: Arm yourself against toxic coworkers. Stepping back from a demanding job can be tough following heart surgery, but sometimes it's a necessity. Wallack found he could no longer take the pressures of his 15-hour-a-day schedule or the coworkers who treated him as if he were still sick, questioning his fitness as a surgeon when he returned to the operating room two months after his surgery. He wound up getting fired, which he says turned out to be a blessing because it forced him to take a less demanding position at a hospital closer to home. The cut in salary and prestige scared him at first until his wife sat him down and explained that his job was what he did but wasn't who he was. That little speech, Colby says, helped her husband realize that while he might not have control over his heart, he did have control over how he defined himself.

Step 8: Train for a physical challenge. Always wanted to scuba dive? Climb Kilimanjaro? Do the three-day breast cancer walk? Gearing up for a physical challenge following heart surgery, Wallack says, is a great way to feel alive again. He himself began training for a marathon after he got his doctor's OK following six months of rehabilitation exercise classes. He finished the race two years after his surgery and has done three marathons since. While supportive of her husband, Colby admits that his long races scare her, including the marathon he has planned for Sunday. "I'm always waiting at the finish line with bated breath," she says. But she's also reassured knowing that she played a key role in getting him there.