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I’ve been a cardiac intensive care nurse my entire career and my real nursing passion is recovering open heart surgery patients. Open heart surgeries don’t go to recovery rooms like most surgeries- they go straight to the intensive care unit (ICU) often still sedated on a breathing machine (ventilator). Initially they require 2:1 nursing- one nurse to manage the patient and another nurse to manage everything else. These patients can be very busy and very challenging, as many post-operative complications can arise, such as high/low blood pressures, abnormal heart rates and rhythms, and of course bleeding from inside that freshly sawed-open chest.
A patient at my previous hospital had literally been hit by a truck, then years later had open-heart surgery. Given the choice, he’d take the truck again. These surgeries are not for the faint of … I can’t do it. They’re tough. But I love them as a nurse because unlike so many ICU patients, you get to see these patients get better. If everything goes as planned you get to take that breathing tube out, you get to sit them up on the side of the bed the night of their surgery, and you get to help them walk to their chair for breakfast the morning after. I love seeing my open heart patients walking the hallways by themselves and doing their incentive spirometers without being asked, and I especially love seeing them or their families in public months later and hearing how well they’re ticking along.
Of course I’d rather no one require open heart surgery in the first place and sometimes the biggest challenge is taking care of people who seemingly care nothing about taking care of themselves. Looking at you, HONDAs (hypertensive, obese, non-compliant diabetic adults). Obviously that isn’t always the case- some people are just born with bad hearts, and others’ hearts go bad after contracting an illness or disease.
In 2013 I went to a presentation by Dr. Roberto Amado-Cattaneo, a cardiovascular surgeon at my hospital in Montana. The presentation and slide show were of his recent trip to Ethiopia to do heart valve replacements on a bunch of kids and young adults who had contracted rheumatic fever in their youth which shot their valves to hell. Dr. Cattaneo showed slides of ET tubes held in by duct tape, a sternum being cut open with scissors because the team’s only sternal saw stopped working, and of course of multiple children, shy smiles on their gorgeous faces. As soon as the presentation was over I went straight to Dr. Cattaneo, introduced myself and told him I was going next time.
On a Monday morning this past January Dr. Cattaneo found me on ICU to ask if I was still interested in going to Ethiopia in February. I told him I’d have to talk my husband into letting me go and some other nurse into going with me. With only a month notice I thought pickings would be slim but he told me “that girl with the braid” said she wanted to go. My friend Adessa?! Yes! I texted her immediately “Serious question. Want to go to Ethiopia with Cattaneo?” She answered right away “Seriously yes!” I started sweating immediately. Time to convince husbands.
I went straight home where my sweet, kind, thoughtful, handsome husband met me at the door. I told him I was so excited about something I was sweating, but I needed to look a few things up before I told him about it. Namely airfare to Addis Ababa. I found reasonable flights, with both cash and miles, which I shared with Adessa, then let Greg know what Cattaneo had asked. He didn’t hesitate for a second, he said “You’re going.” I called Cattaneo to let him know I was in for sure and would let him know by the end of the week whether I had another nurse to go with. By Friday two other kind, thoughtful husbands agreed to let their wives go too. Thanks men! Adessa, Sandy, and I going to Africa!
Read about all the mission and our surgeries: