OPEN YOUR HEART: The story of one yoga teachers journey through open heart surgery
Today, August 13th, 2022, it has been exactly one year since I went through open heart surgery. I share this story with all of you with the intention that it provides you with some hope that you and your loved ones can recover from heart surgery and how yoga can potentially be a huge part of the healing process.
It was a nice Saturday afternoon. My husband and I attended two outdoor gatherings and had just gotten home for the day. We were sitting on the couch winding down and I happened to take a look at my Apple Watch. I noticed that my resting heart rate was highly elevated (126bpm), which was very unusual especially given that we were doing nothing other than relaxing at the time. I figured it was a fluke. I continued to check in with my watch over the next few hours and although I wasn’t feeling any notable discomfort or symptoms, my heart rate remained high and nothing I tried, even various yoga breathing techniques, could help. I was hesitant to head to the hospital, given that I felt just fine, but my husband talked me into going just to get it checked out.
Upon arrival at the emergency room, I was checked in and a battery of tests were run. Before long I was admitted. At this point, no one knew what was wrong. I was seen by many specialists including a heart doctor, pulmonary specialist, an internal medicine doctor, infectious disease experts and more. It was determined that I had fluid on my lungs and I was experiencing heart failure. Soon after I was told I would need to have open heart surgery to either repair or replace my faulty mitral valve.
It’s not often that you hear of a yoga teacher needing open heart surgery. Most yoga teachers are the epitome of health. We exercise regularly, are outdoors frequently and know how to manage anxiety and stress. That’s exactly why when I found myself faced with open heart surgery, not only was I shocked, but my entire community of friends, family and yogi’s just couldn’t believe it. I received many messages saying things like “You’re the last person I thought would ever have heart problems” or “But you seem so healthy, how did this happen?”.
A little background about me may help explain. I’m a 48 year old (47 at the time) wife and mother of 3. I’m a Yoga Studio Owner, Yoga Therapist & Yoga Teacher. I eat healthy, primarily plant based. I am very active (yoga, bike riding, kayaking etc.). Overall, seemingly very healthy. What most people couldn’t tell just by looking at me though, is I had a condition called “Mitral Valve Prolapse”. MVP is a very common heart condition affecting about 3-5% of the population. Many people live their whole lives without having to worry about it at all.
I was diagnosed with MVP as a kid and although it was something that was monitored, it was not something that ever limited my physical activities. I have always felt strong, energetic and invincible. What I didn’t take seriously, was the fact that attached to my heart, I had a ticking time bomb that would send me into heart failure and unexpected open heart surgery at the age of 47.
Hearing this news was shocking, but something that I’ve learned through my yoga practice over the years is resilience, or the ability to self soothe. I understood the fact that this was now my story, and while I wasn’t looking forward to the scar down the center of my torso that is the result of a typical open heart surgery, I made peace with it.
During the brief time when things at the hospital were getting sorted out and plans were being made, I did a little research. The good news was I discovered an alternative option for surgery that is less invasive and does not involve breaking or cutting bone. The bad news was that this surgery was not offered at the hospital I was at and the surgeon I found that could do it was in another state. I shared this information with my husband and later that night, he did his own research and found a lecture online that one of the executives at a nearby hospital gave describing the very surgical method I was seeking out. We researched the surgeon and through a variety of advocates I had behind the scenes and the recommendations of people we trusted, I was accepted by this surgeon and requested to transfer hospitals. Because of the fragile state I was in, this had to be done via ambulance. My first, and hopefully my last ambulance ride.
The surgery I was about to have is called a thoracotomy. If you don't know much about open heart surgery, this means that you're connected to a heart/lung machine and that your heart is stopped while the surgery takes place. What differs about this surgery from the traditional open heart surgery, is that access to the heart is gained via the ribs as opposed to a sternotomy where access to the heart is gained via the sternum.
Not all surgeons or all hospitals do open heart this way as it's a more challenging operation for the surgeon. The thoracotomy approach has to cut through many layers (pec major, pec minor, intercostal muscles, many layers of fascia and many nerves). A rib spreader is used to open the ribs large enough to perform the surgery. They say a thoracotomy is one of the most painful surgical procedures, and while there has definitely been a lot of pain along the way, I was lucky that my surgeon used a cryo nerve block post surgery, postponing the intensity of pain I would feel while things started to heal.
After 12 days in the intensive care unit at the hospital, I was finally able to come home. Being a yoga therapist, I had the knowledge and tools to help create my own healing plan and path to recovery. I began slowly incorporating subtle movements and myofascial release. I truly believe that being very active, including doing yoga most days, and maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle contributed to my quicker than expected recovery. Two weeks post surgery I was back at the studio teaching gentle yoga. Three weeks post surgery and I was teaching my full schedule of classes. One month and I was back to doing yoga most days (gently), walking almost every day and riding my bike. I’m happy to report, a year later, that I am back to normal and am everyday grateful for the strength and resilience that yoga provided me.
Here’s a look at the recovery plan I created for myself. If you think it would be helpful to someone you know who is recovering from open heart surgery, please feel free to share this protocol with them. I’ve added some links below to a few videos that have demonstrations of some of the things listed below.
SIMPLE 4-7-8 COUNT BREATH FOCUSING ON MOVEMENT THROUGH THE RIB CAGE
SEATED BRACHIAL PLEXUS NERVE GLIDES
SEATED SHOULDER ROLLS
MYOFASCIAL RELEASE FOR SUB OCCIPITALS
CHILDS POSE - USING BOLSTER OR PILLOW TO SUPPORT CHEST
SEATED BRACHIAL PLEXUS NERVE GLIDES
SEATED SHOULDER SEQUENCE
SHALLOW SIDE BENDS USING BREATH TO GENTLY EXPAND THE RIBS
MYOFASCIAL RELEASE FOR UPPER BACK & SHOULDERS
GENTLE YOGA FOCUSING ON HEART OPENING VERY SIMILAR TO OUR ONLINE CLASS “GENTLE YOGA | HEART OPENING”