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Coping with Wild Ups and Downs after a Heart Transplant

25 Jun

After being taken by surprise by a pretty typical, distressing, lurching, crazy emotional roller coaster ride following his heart transplant surgery, a man wonders if there is something he can do to alleviate or cushion his symptoms.  Here’s his comment and question:
 
Question:

I am wondering what you might suggest for patients undergoing heart transplants. I spent seven months in a hospital and can tell you the emotions and abandonment are unreal and I want to be able to suggest something other patients can do without help from others which will provide the benefit of mental imagery and not require the assistance of others. A cd player can be put on by a patient, everything else is a gift as there is always someone higher priority and everyone is busy with their own lives. Perhaps you can suggest something for me as well to manage what to do with all the emotional turmoil after surviving all the physical.

Dave

Answer:

Dear Dave,

Thanks very much for the question.  I'm happy to answer.  And posting it is a great way to alert others about the profound and often surprising impact of heart transplantation surgery.  People are rarely forewarned and are often knocked flat by the emotional wallop they experience.  Ultimately it may leave the person more in touch with their feelings in a permanent way – and that’s certainly not a bad thing.  But it can be pretty disorienting and feel pretty weird at first.

Any open heart surgery, really, will make for some very strong reactions.  It's not unusual to see long-buried posttraumatic stress get kicked loose, even from combat seen some 60 years ago during WWII and buried far from consciousness all that time.
 
All sorts of old traumas can resurface, which makes us think that these heartbreaking events are really and truly experienced by us in our hearts, and once we disrupt that amazing organ and its boundaries, all bets are off for business as usual, and the grief, pain, fear and sorrow all come flooding back!  We're only beginning to understand the effects of CABG (artery grafting) surgery, let alone what happens to our psyches and souls when we actually switch our heart for someone else's!
 
So I wouldn’t be surprised if your surgery unearthed some ancient abandonment issues you may have suffered earlier in your life.  Or, some would suggest that perhaps this abandonment came with the cellular intelligence of your adopted heart and it’s former experiences.  (I know that sounds pretty bizarre, but there is some evidence to suggest this, and the highly regarded mind-body psychologist Paul Pearsall even wrote a book about it: The Heart’s Code.  Another book called A Change of Heart: A Memoir by transplant survivor Claire Sylvia, describes her experience of picking up some of the characteristics and even food preferences of her young, male, teenage donor.)
 
Your suggestion for self-soothing and mood-regulating tools to hand a patient before, during and after this hugely disruptive and dysregulated time is spot on.  And in fact, patients can prepare for these surgeries by bringing along a CD player, as you suggest, or by uploading to their iPod or iPad, or by purchasing a Playaway, which is a preloaded player that you mostly see in libraries, hospitals and downrange in the military, because they're so handy, durable and convenient.

We have imagery that specifically targets the transplantation experience, but only as it applies to bone marrow transplants.  And although there are suggestions in that audio around the themes of accepting the gift of the transplant and not resisting or rejecting it; and the whole archetypal notion of renewal, rebirth and resurrection; it still has a lot of images in there that are unique to chemo and cancer.
   
So I suppose the imagery we have that would apply best would be our Successful Surgery CD, of course, for before; and also Relaxation & Wellness, Healing Trauma, General Wellness and maybe even Heartbreak, Abandonment & Betrayal or Ease Grief, as these surgeries do seem to evoke heart-based feelings of loss and sorrow along with opposing feelings of being profoundly moved by feelings of love and gratitude.
 
Perhaps later on the Self-Confidence & Peak Performance imagery would come in handy, as you start readying yourself to re-engage in daily activities of living. Bottom line: you would do well to be patient with this roller coaster ride as your body, mind and spirit learn to accommodate to this new heart.

So, at the risk of offering a real groaner of a pun, I say, "Take heart, Sir!!"  I wish you the very best of luck, and a successful, productive and love-filled future with your wonderful, life-saving new equipment.

All best wishes,

Belleruth

Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award