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Heart Pillows and Medical Mysteries

By Melanie Falcon, Anchor / Reporter, @Melanie_Falcon, MFalcon@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 27 2012 11:45:27 AM CST
Updated On: Jan 02 2013 04:28:19 PM CST
WFMZ-TV's Melanie Falcon in the recovery room following open heart surgery.

WFMZ-TV's Melanie Falcon in the recovery room, following open heart surgery.

I was in and out of consciousness on Monday, the day after open heart surgery. Still waking up from the anesthesia, I have flashes of memories; my dad and aunt sitting in the room, my mom being by my side, my fiancé and his family watching over me. I remember drinking grape juice while on oxygen and thinking how funny its texture was, it seemed almost carbonated.

All of this still seemed like a dream, but the monitors, IVs, and tubes attached to me were far too tangible. I was in the Open Heart Intensive Care Unit, a pink heart shaped pillow placed over my chest and nurses by my bedside constantly. I was taught to hold the pillow to my chest every time I had to cough (which was often, a common post-surgery thing for most heart patients) and told the pillow would be instrumental when I was able to get up and walk again.

Some of the wires, tubes, and cords slowly started to come off Monday night and Tuesday. I was still hooked up to IVs and heart monitors but felt liberated. Family was allowed to visit a little more often and I was surprised to be out of breath after a five-minute conversation.

They filled me in on how the surgery went: it went well, took 5 1/2 hours, and I now had not only a brand new aortic valve but also a patch in my heart. Both are thanks to a cow. I could have had either a mechanical or tissue valve (tissue replacement valves are typically human, cow, or pig). A tissue valve unfortunately will need to be replaced eventually, but a mechanical valve requires blood thinners for the rest of one's life. I chose tissue.

During the surgery, what the surgeon found was not a pretty sight. He essentially had to carve out where the infection was, then put in the patch before replacing the valve. The scariest part: if he hadn't operated when he did, I may have only had hours to live.

However, I was alive and recovering, and on Tuesday, ready to take my first steps. First, I had to get out of bed for the first time. Clutching my heart-shaped pillow tightly to my chest for support, I was taught to roll over onto my side, then sit up and swing my legs over. I needed a hand to sit all the way up and further help to stand. Walking was just like I remembered it, but I was still scared, uneasy on my feet. I walked down the hall maybe 30 feet, then back. It was exhausting but I was relieved to be doing something normal again.

On Wednesday afternoon, I was ready to move from the ICU and onto the regular Open Heart Unit floor. Surrounded by family and nurses, I was even able to walk there on my own. Over the next several days, I continued to get stronger, able to sit up on my own after a few apprehensive tries, and my walks around the hospital floor got longer. I almost had a little set back with the cough but I was given a spirometer (a plastic device that you blow into to inflate the lungs and improve their capacity- I hated that thing but it was crucial to my recovery) and a nebulizer (which delivers medicine through mist inhaled into the lungs) to further help.

I had been somewhat of a mystery case since I checked in and was gaining interest amongst the doctors. Despite finding the valve and infection, they still had no idea how I got the infection, exactly what it was, or what caused it. While laboratory tests were pending, I remained on 3 IV-administered antibiotics to ensure the infection--whatever it was--wouldn't return.

The rest of the week passed quickly with family and now friends stopping by. My amazing WFMZ family even sent my photographer Zach to visit with flowers, cards, chocolates, and more!

On Friday, doctors figured out what caused the infection, a rare strain of the flu that almost never affects people how it affected me, and they had no idea how I may have gotten it. So, that, combined with the bicuspid valve I was born with, was the perfect storm. I was down to one antibiotic and up to 5 short walks a day, and there was buzz about me being able to go home.

On Saturday, cardiologists and my surgeon checked me out to make sure I was ready and I got the thumbs up. After nine days in the hospital and six days after open heart surgery, the prospect of going home was both exciting, and to be honest, terrifying.

It had all happened so fast. Fevers and fatigue for five weeks, not knowing what was wrong, enduring seemingly every medical test known to man, finally finding out what it was, and having surgery that very same day. It was a whirlwind and I don't think it had all hit me yet. When I was admitted, I expected to leave with a prescription for some antibiotics, not having just had open heart surgery. Thanks to Dr. Singer and his surgical team, I was alive, and that was what mattered. To them and every other doctor, surgeon, nurse, and tech who cared for me, I will be forever grateful.

Continue to follow Melanie's recovery as she heads home in next week's blog, Saturday, January 5 on WFMZ.com.