by Carolyn Thomas ♥ @HeartSisters
Each surgical scar on my body tells a story. The big long one that tracks across my lower right abdomen tells of an appendix that ruptured on my 16th birthday – and the subsequent month I spent in hospital seriously ill with peritonitis and creepy drainage tubes. Two scars on my right knee tell of surgery after an unfortunate slide down a big pile of gravel. Another meandering zig zag tells of a nasty piece of broken glass once embedded into my left palm, its evidence exquisitely masked by the skilled plastic surgeon who sewed my hand back up.
Women who have survived open heart surgery sometimes have traumatic stories to tell about their very noticeable chest scars, and mixed emotions about whether “to hide or not to hide” this evidence of their cardiac history, particularly in the early weeks and months post-op.
Consider, for example, 45-year-old Myra from New Jersey, who tells this story:
“I had a double bypass open heart surgery five months ago. I feel so sad and stressed about my scar. Sometimes I cry when I’m in the shower, or if I try to wear a shirt and can’t wear it because it shows.
“I watch my friends at the pool wearing bathing suits while I’m sitting on the side watching them, wearing a t-shirt and shorts. I feel out of the group, just don’t want to be there. I wish I could remove my scar. I’m so very stressed about it.”
Another heart patient observes:
“My illness has created more scars than just the physical ones, and these were far worse. I couldn’t – wouldn’t – believe I looked just fine.”
What these women have undergone is called a sternotomy (and keep on reading to learn more about how this surgical procedure works).
You might be surprised to learn that not all patients hate their scars.
One woman, for example, described the long sternotomy scar on her chest from her heart bypass surgery as:
“A map of illness and recovery.”
Another wrote this:
“My scar shows the world what I have survived and overcome. They say this body is far from perfect – but it’s mine.”
And another woman added:
“They are my battle scars earned and gloriously celebrated as such.”
Or this, from a 17-year old girl:
“When I was 18 months old, my twin brother and I had to have open heart surgery. As I grew up, my scar grew with me. It’s about six inches long and very noticeable with low-cut shirts.
“I have lived with the scar my whole life. I am now 17 and it is hard for me having to tell friends and boyfriends how I got the scar. But I’m proud because I am living, so it’s like a battle wound, and I know that it does not matter.
“Scar or no scar, it has made me the person I am today. We should be proud of overcoming, no matter how we got these scars.”
I loved this story from a 44-year old bypass surgery survivor whose chest scar has sometimes attracted unwanted public attention:
“A gentleman walked past me at a local Target. He was staring at my chest pretty intently.
“Well, I ran into this guy at least another two times while shopping, with him walking towards me staring openly at my chest. I think he was trying to get a better look at the scar.
“By the third time, I pointed directly at it and said to him: ‘Bear attack!’ He was VERY embarrassed – and walked away quickly!”
Perhaps the longer we live with our battle scars, the easier it can become to accept them – no matter what the source of those scars. For example:
“I have a scar on my chest from when I had heart surgery as a child. It saved my life. And I have stretch marks from my first pregnancy which I always hated until a friend told me: ‘Yes, but they were created by your son!’ It made me totally re-think my view on them.
“Years later I got a C-section scar after giving birth to Son #2. My scarred-up tummy is beautiful and a reflection of two wonderful little boys and a life saved to have them.
“I may not be wearing crop tops or bikinis now, but I love my scars!”
This trio of U.K. heart patients (pictured above) have interesting stories to tell about how they managed to adjust to their own scars. Shell Williams (left) found that showing her scar in a fundraising calendar helped her come to terms with it. Valerie Johnson (centre) went from hating her scar to seeing it as a sign of the life she’s lived. Michelle Houston (right) had heart surgery in her 20s and learned to view her scar as a sign of bravery.
Now, I promised you an explanation of what creates those scars during your open heart surgery while you’re snoozing away in the O.R. – and here goes:
Your heart rests beneath the sternum – the organ’s skeletal chest armor and the central bone to which ribs are attached. Cracking this bone running down the centre of the chest requires pressure, power and precision, according to Popular Mechanics (yes, you read that right) and their very useful if unlikely guide Extreme How-To: Step By Step Heart Surgery – one of the clearest explanations of this procedure that I’ve seen yet.
The most common type of saw used in heart surgery is an oscillating saw, which moves up and down at a rapid speed and works like a jigsaw, enabling the fine blade to cut curved lines. Sometimes – especially on patients who have had heart procedures done before – surgeons will use a saw that’s like the one used to remove casts. It stops immediately when it senses tissue. Very comforting concept.
Surgeons cut through the sternum either completely or partially, straight down the middle, but they don’t remove it. They then slowly spread apart the cut halves of the sternum with retractors, something similar to a brace. This allows the entire chest and heart to be open before them.
The standard approach to open heart surgery means the entire rib cage is opened and the heart muscle beneath is fully exposed. The patient is then placed on a heart-lung bypass machine which allows oxygenated blood to circulate throughout the body while bypassing the heart, thus allowing the surgeon to stop the heart and perform surgery while the heart muscle is not moving.
In the modified approach, the cardiac surgeon performs the surgery on a beating heart without the use of the heart lung machine, using instead a stabilizing instrument – sometimes used even for multi-vessel bypass surgery – without the need of the heart lung machine. This is sometimes an option for a patient with a good, strong heart muscle because the surgery itself places stress on the heart.
A partial sternotomy can be performed when limited exposure is adequate, frequently used for heart valve surgery. Or some heart patients may be good candidates for Minimally Invasive Direct Coronary Artery Bypass (MIDCAB), a surgical approach that involves a small incision usually on the left anterior portion of the chest wall between the third and fourth or fourth and fifth ribs. In most cases, this incision is made through, not under, the breast.
Once the surgical procedure is completed (replacing blocked coronary arteries, repairing or replacing wonky heart valves, heart transplant), surgeons use customized plates and screws (they used to use wires) to hold the sternum and ribs in place as they heal. Fortunately, because heart surgeons break more bone than even orthopedic surgeons do, repairing the sternum has been the focus of many surgical advances in the past few decades.
BEST RESOURCE EVER! Here are some practical tips from Elizabeth Dole on managing your open heart surgery scar once you get home.
Big or small, let’s let the last word on scars fall to a heart patient who said:
“A scar is never ugly. We must see all scars as beauty. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means: I survived!”.
Q: Have you been able to make peace with a major scar?
Scar image from Defective Heart Girl…
I wrote more about adjusting to scars and other cardiac issues in my new book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” (Johns Hopkins University, November 2017).
166 thoughts on “Learning to love your open heart surgery scar”
Six weeks in and my legs are a mess. I have a scar going from ankle to knee plus about 15 smaller cuts on my thigh. Other leg has about 12 cuts. My left breast has 5 cuts. Six cuts in the groin.
I look like I have been butchered. Very distraught and the pain in my legs is excruciating. Chest wound is okay.
Hello Jo – I’m so sorry to hear that you’re having ‘excruciating’ pain in your legs. Please call your doctor’s office to report this pain, just to ensure it’s not being caused by something more serious than simple wound healing – at six weeks this does seems alarming. When you call, do not sugarcoat your symptoms; describe clearly how this excruciating pain is affecting your day to day function and quality of life, and specifically what kinds of activities seem to worsen the pain.
Many cardiac surgery patients report that it can take 2-3 months to heal completely and feel more “normal” again. I know you don’t want to hear that, which is why it’s important that you contact your medical team to get help for this leg pain.
Ironic that your chest wound is not bothering you as much as all of the many incisions on your legs.
Best of luck to you. . . ♥
8 weeks in and my scar is beautiful. They used glue and the bump at my neck is gone. Now my leg is another story. 3 large scars that they used staples to close. I am trying vitamin E. I shall check back in at a later date.
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Good news Susan – your open heart surgery scar is already healing nicely! The leg scars WILL heal as well – but it will take as long as it takes. Good luck with the Vitamin E cream. Also visit Elizabeth Dole’s site (the link is at the bottom of this post under BEST RESOURCE EVER!) for more tips on scar healing.
Take care, stay safe. . . ♥
Four years in I’ve had a lot of cortisone injections as I got a massive keloid scar. I still have some scars but you can’t see them above my cleavage.
I have one concern. Ever since the surgery, I have had a lot of pain where my bra band hits the right side of my rib cage under my breast. On the day I left the hospital, a doctor I had not met from my cardiologist’s office came in to remove the drain. He pulled and pulled and pulled and it would not come out. It hurt like crazy and I thought he would pull me right off of the bed; when it finally started to come loose, it hurt so badly I almost passed out.
The tube came out with a discolored fold at the top and a definite crease, like it had been set up but never opened and left with a clip on it when they closed me up. I have had xrays and no one will say anything about what is there, but there is a lump and sometimes it feels like a giant piece of my insides is moving from behind my ribcage to outside of it. It hurts when this happens, usually when I bend over and I can not stand up straight quickly, I have to wait for whatever it is to settle.
My docs insist it is a little bump in there, but no one will elaborate or suggest any cure. I am mystified. Has anyone else felt this? I had this surgery done at a hospital famous for its excellence and I am upset that no one will address this. Any comments?
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Meridee, your story makes me squirm, just picturing that scenario: “….pulled and pulled and pulled and would not come out”, and that it “….hurt so badly I almost passed out”. Ouch!
A surgical drain removal can indeed sometimes be briefly painful – but your experience sounds dreadful. At what point would that doctor have called for a more experienced physician to assist in the removal before he almost “pulled you right off the bed”?
The current issue now seems to be this “little bump” and worse, that you’re not getting full information about what this “bump” is, or what you can do about it. I’m not a physician, of course – but after four years, I’d want some answers if I were you, particularly since this is still affecting your daily quality of life.
I’d also ask your physicians about the possibility of a seroma (a collection of fluids that collect after a surgical procedure). These are not uncommon, and tend to appear a week or so after surgical drainage tubes have been removed. My understanding is that seromas may persist for months or even years as the surrounding tissue hardens, and that getting a seroma removed surgically can be relatively minor surgery.
Your docs may insist that it’s “just” a little bump, but you also have a right to insist that whatever is causing your ongoing issues with this “bump” must be addressed. Any hospital that’s “famous” for its excellence should be open to helping you.
Good luck to you. Take care and stay safe. . . ♥
Thank you Carolyn for responding to my letters about my experience with my open heart surgery and the cause of my heart distress. I think I never would have had my heart issue if I had been able to work with my husband on his attitude and our relationship. Emotional distress is such a big player in heart heath.
I have found my own way into a life that works very well for me. My decision to become my “own” person and not let the narcissism my husband suffers from affect me. This was hardest on him. After 50 years together I am doing my own thing but also able to love him completely with my own boundaries which he has come to accept and be okay with. I will say it went to a point where I ended up with a bruise in my doctor’s office which resulted in a police visit at our house two days later, and then he was put in jail for one night for domestic violence.
Of all of the things we discussed and argued about concerning his behavior, the night in jail got his attention. I now have a “peaceful contact” order in place with him and he certainly never wants to repeat that night. This possibility has caused him to rethink his anger responses and he is making great progress. The best part is I have a “weapon” that I will apparently never have to use. We have been peaceful. It’s great. I feel very positive. Now if I could just get this seroma? scar tissue? whatever it is looked at seriously I’d be perfect.
I was very grateful that you mentioned that so I can talk to my cardiologist about it at our yearly checkup coming up soon.
Thanks so much,
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Hi again Meridee – good luck with your upcoming cardiologist appointment – I hope that visit leads to some relief for your discomfort.
Take care, and stay safe. . . ♥
That was all true. I had a triple bypass at 55 years and was very self conscious of my scar. I remember feeling each one of those feelings. Now I’m finally in a place of peace. My scars are proof of my inner strength and winning over death. God wanted me to teach others about my journey. He loves me and I’m still alive.
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Love your description of “finally in a place of peace”, Nancy!
Take care, and stay safe… ♥
Celebrating 2 complimentary years of life today, I’m happy to wear my scar❤️
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Happy Heartiversary, Linda!!!! ♥ ♥ ♥
I had open heart surgery and another heart surgery when I was a baby. As a result I have the long vertical scar on my chest. Also I have two small scars on my ribcage. I think they are from a drain or something for or during surgery… I’m 17 now…
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I kinda think my scars are special…they show what I’ve been through…but will my husband think them ugly?
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Many women wonder the same thing. I think you’ll know you picked the right guy when he reassures you that he loves you, scars and all.
Carolyn, I just read my comment from Feb that came in on my emails today that you published (see below). I answered, an update.
I wanted to thank you for your contributions for women like me who have been through the mill. I did read the references that you cited and agree, had I left like I should have after the first devastating infidelity I would have definitely been better off (or even before that because the nasty abuses did escalate including a call to police on domestic violence).
He has been thoughtless throughout our marriage but we married young and I thought that was just how men were! I got bad therapy immediately after my suicide attempt, a male therapist who advised me to get an even bigger boat with my husband and continue on, no mention of his personality disorder from what I discussed with him! and no help from the cardiologist regarding depression although my husband said in the release meeting at the hospital that someone did mention depression as a possibility.
Being the narcissist, he wasn’t tuned in at all to that part of my recovery. I had been sad over his cheating 10 years ago. It ate at me and in retrospect, yes, had I been advised earlier that that was the personality I was living with for all these years that I would have chosen to leave, knowing the reality of this particular personality disorder.
But now, I read about the devastation of leaving and not having money in your 70’s, no thanks. I’ll work around him. I plan on outliving the old man. I am pretty sure the alcohol will eventually take his brain, it doesn’t seem to work as well as it used to. He is at least aware of the concept of narcissism now, the potential causes, he did have a painful childhood, and a narcissist alcoholic father. He of course thinks he is not a narcissist. Says I’m the narcissist! He is trying to cut back on his drinking, a very hard thing to do for a person who has been an alcoholic since age 18. I do not drink anymore, not since my heart surgery. It simply kills my stomach.
I ponder the life I live with a man I do not respect nor trust. He’s just what he is. I have been told not to go back into the past mentally. I can’t help but wonder what else he has done that I don’t know about. At least now I am aware of his tendency to do random things without thinking about the consequences or taking responsibility for them, what they mean and how I can avoid being damaged anymore by them. Not to respond if he says it’s my fault. It’s his. If I left I would have to move to a place where I could afford to live, at this stage in life, not a positive idea. I have lived in my hometown almost my entire life in coastal Southern Calif.
Even selling our home would not leave me with enough money to rent anything other than a room, and that’s just to stay near to my only living relatives, my daughter and her daughter. I fear my daughter has married a man just like good old dad! My granddaughter brings me great joy.
I am at least needed by them. Being needed is important. Ego alone cannot sustain a person. Life needs purpose. I want you to know you have great purpose in many people’s lives.
Hello again Meridee…. Thanks for that update. Each of us makes decisions that seem to make the most sense to us at any given time. Yours are based on what you know (life with “a man I do not respect nor trust”) vs what you fear (“not having money in your 70s”). Good luck to you in making that decision…
Possibly the biggest decider is that my daughter who lives right behind me and works full time needs my help to get our 7 year old granddaughter off to school in the mornings. Mommy has to leave at 6:30 (commute) and school for our granddaughter starts at 8:30. I do have my escape mechanisms to make life a bit sweeter. This is one of them. I won’t move to somewhere at this point in my life where the weather is harsh, I’m working on spending time with my husband restoring a boat that is half mine and that I like very much, and he has been cutting his wine drinking in half which I find very hopeful.
So it’s not a black and white situation, is anything?
As I said, you’re making decisions that make sense to you…
Hi I had triple bypass surgery in early May 2018. After surgery i could count up to 10 cuts on my body from my chest to back of my ears. Below my breast and my legs and thighs. Fortunately with technology today a lot of scars have faded. Except for the chest. Also I have not allowed it to make me uncomfortable in the presence of people. I am very comfortable wearing strappy tops. For me my scar is a sign of positivity of life. Feeling more appreciative of life each day.
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I like your attitude, Sanitha!
14 months after emergency surgery. Bad GP did not keep me healthy as I had high blood pressure for months and she did nothing about it. Then I saw her the day I self directed to the ER, she did not want to admit me cause she was in the middle of a Christmas party in the office and also, surprise, the hospital we were two blocks away from she did not have admitting privileges to. That is a lesson right there. I was sedated immediately and told I would have open heart surgery the next afternoon. I had no emotional prep for that. I was terrified.
The scar was very painful and last month finally the dermatologist took pity on me and injected it with steroids. That hurt a lot and I have two more sessions to go but it makes a huge difference in the sensitivity and thickness of the scar. Do that for yourself. I couldn’t even bear to have my breasts touched. My bra was a torture.
I also attempted suicide after 6 months. I realize after surviving the surgery and not having to take any meds afterwards with a full life span predicted is good. My actual heart muscle and arteries are in great shape. No spare parts. But the depression is no joke. I am still depressed and seeing a therapist. I have been married since I was 21 to a man who is a complete narcissist. Or so my therapist says. But he did take good care of me in my recovery. We are retired so it helped.
I told my husband that it was my time to go and that I should not have had the surgery I should have just died. I just turned 67. That was immediately after the surgery. It was a miserable time.
This whole episode has made me think that I might have 20 years left in my life. I am married to an alcoholic who didn’t even get me a card for Valentine’s day. Not only does my physical heart affect me, my emotional heart was the part that caused the tear in the mitral valve in the first place. I was having a dreadful fight with my husband when it tore.I lived with the tear and got increasingly weak because my heart could no longer pump the blood out and was literally drowning in blood.
None of the female practictioners I have spoken to doubt me on the cause of the onset of my heart issue. The male docs dismiss it. This makes me think less of them. I know how powerful emotions are.
If you are in a bad relationship leave it. I don’t see how financially I can leave this one. I stayed for my kids, although it’s always been a heartbreaker. Husband cheated on me. I wish I had been smarter and left when I was much younger. I really doubt I’d have been in this boat today had I paid attention to my hurt feelings all these years and realized that a lot of men actually treat their wives nicely. Mine is totally practical and while he has always had a yacht, he won’t spend money on sentimental things, dinners out, anything like that.
If anything I have learned since my heart surgery it is that life is short and leave bad situations if you are young enough. Breaking up this household now would be financial ruin.
Yesterday I drove myself 2 hours to a museum show I have been dying to see. I could not get my husband to go with me. He only does what he wants to do which is work on his boat and drink. The show was great but it sure was lonely.
My point, the heart and the soul (emotions) are inseparable.
Hello Meridee – I’m very, very glad you are seeing a therapist. After what you’ve been through (and I don’t just mean your emergency valve procedure – which sounds like it is actually the least of your problems), taking the time to sort this all out mentally, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually can only help you gain some valuable perspective and make some tough decisions that will impact your future, no matter what you choose.
I don’t know you or your hubby, but I’ve written a lot over the years whenever another academic study is published on how damaging staying in a bad marriage is for one’s health – both cardiac and in general. Read this or this, for example. My own opinions are irrelevant; I’ll just say you’ll get some idea if you read these articles (and particularly the reader comments in response to them).
I’ll just say generally that you already know what is best for you and your heart to do, so taking your own wise counsel that you offer to others could be next on your list of important topics at your upcoming therapy appointment. You can continue to make yourself miserable by blaming him for things like refusing to go with you to special outings like yesterday, but it’s like expecting a blue-eyed person to suddenly develop brown eyes and be completely different. That ain’t going to happen. It would be a surprise if he DIDN’T behave the way he does, wouldn’t it? You know him. You know what to expect. Nothing about his behaviour should surprise or even hurt you as long as you keep volunteering to put up with it.
Best of luck to you in making the decision, one way or the other.
Walk a mile in my moccasins, realize your only child has no other close relatives and you are going to break up a marriage of 46 years and leave her after she’s bought the house directly behind you and you have adjoining back gates? Nope, I’m staying. The husband is too. I just have broadened my interests, book club, writing group, swimming at the Y a couple of times a week, great friends there and at our weekly music group. I’d not want to start over as I have found great solace in my girlfriends.
My husband has his good moments and is so talented, we have remodeled homes and boats together. I’ll stay. But I keep my self esteem whereas before it was greatly lacking. Or yeah, I would have left in my 30’s,could have supported myself on my teaching. It would have been nice to have a mother or sister of my own close by to help me see where I was being too complacent.The complication of dealing with a narcissist is that they isolate you. My heart would never have been in distress like this probably had I gone.
But I have one friend who says she wishes she’s stuck it out, as she left her husband and sees older long term couples like ours and wonders if she did the right thing. My husband is not perfect but you have no idea what we have accomplished together in this life, far more than most couples.
Life is not perfect, I just got dealt a hand of bad cards, and I’m going to go for another hand. With a more centered attitude. Not be so worried about pleasing a narcissist. It took therapy to help me realize what I was dealing with and how to deal with it. That insensitivity is part of narcissism.
Regarding that scar, if it is raised and painful like mine after 5 series of shots to flatten it finally I am not in pain. I recommend anyone with such a scar like that seek a good dermatologist. My heart surgeon just did not care about the scar or offer any suggestions for relief. Had to seek it out on my own. The upper part of the scar is not that noticeable. I still avoid deep v neck shirts. It’s not that I’m embarrassed I just would rather not talk about it.
Moving on is a good thing and the scar at least has not dampened my husband’s affection towards me.
Hello fellow survivors (regardless of purpose for surgery)
I am 33 and found out that I would need surgery earlier this year. It was a bunch of back and forth from my local cardiologist and my referred Cardiologist 2 hours away. So my local said I had a large hole (ASD) that was causing the right side of my heart to enlarge. He said I needed open heart surgery within the next year. I instantly felt dizzy and overwhelmed but I fought my tears and decided to research.
I realized that it was like being pregnant, every person has a different perspective and a different story and outcome. But I am one that likes to know the good and bad, so I asked both Cardiologists a long list of questions.
So upon further studies the prognosis changed to they could not find the holes. (Upon meeting 2nd Dr, he thought he had seen a second hole). He said I was one of his “complicated cases”, but he was almost certain I would not need surgery, but because my heart was enlarged he knew something was wrong.
So after MRI/MRA the surgeon told my cardiologist it was in my best interest to have the surgery because it was only a matter of time before I had a stroke.
They explained that in a sense it was exploratory surgery but my surgeon was confident I had an ASD that was rather large due to blood flow and size of heart.
So on 8/27/18 I had open heart surgery (a week after being told “so again your case is rather confusing and complicated but it turns out we will be conducting surgery”). My spouse had in his head surgery was out of the question but I knew my heart was failing. My body was always tired, I could not be active without chest pain, constantly running out of breath and falling asleep for hours on end. People, including my spouse thought it was in my head or I was making it up.
So long story short, I told myself when they fix my heart I will have a new start.
My new Motto is “new heart, new start”. I thought I would have a hard time dealing with pain and the scar. When I woke up the only pain I felt was on my right arm, strange I know. But I guess it’s rather common in women and I was given nerve pain pills because my right arm was basically immobile. The pain and discomfort kept me up for many weeks and still does.
But I told myself I cannot rely on meds to pull me through, I need to do it myself (addiction runs in my family and I did not want to join that club) so I only take meds if intolerable.
Even upon returning home, I cut my dose in half and took as needed. Which was mainly at night, don’t get me wrong there was pain there were days or nights that it would hit out of nowhere and I would cry. My spouse would urge me to take pain meds as recommended but I simply couldn’t risk becoming dependent.
I spent my mornings alone, sometimes the full day so I had to learn to fight the depression. Which for me was the hardest. No one in my family understood being alone made me feel hopeless and crippled. I couldn’t even comb my own hair, my son helped with that. My spouse helped me shower, I felt useless and would ask God why me? I would lie awake feeling empty and a bunch of nothingness.
So I reached out to a blogger who had open heart surgery last year and she made me feel so much better and told me to speak up and tell my family I had the right to feel the way I did and that I needed them to understand that because I put on a good show, does not mean I am okay everyday. When I did they started including me in their day to day activities which was actually stimulating. It took my depression away immediately, I felt like I was part of the family again and not some charity case.
When my scar started to keloid up, I was actually sad at first and cried, but my friend reminded me that the scar means I am alive and my kids got to keep their mother. I am blessed and know I will have my moments but I truly am a survivor in more than one way (domestic violence, rape, valley fever, open heart surgery, etc.).
So I wear my scars with pride, people have been kind to me, some ask questions and I answer honestly. Maybe someone out there has the same issues and if I can help one person, why not?
Reading a lot of these comments made feel I had to share so people know they are not alone and it’s ok to feel a certain way about your situation, we are all different and handle things in our own way.
The one thing we have to remember is that WE define who we are, no one else. Don’t give power to those who don’t deserve it. Take control to the best of your ability and things will slowly improve. Most importantly never give up and if any one would like to talk or ask questions please contact me. I am here and would love to listen. Remember “new heart, new start!”
Celebrate life and 2nd chances. Not everyone gets it.
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Hello Mel – you certainly are a survivor. Thanks for sharing your perspective as a person who has been through a roller coaster of physical and emotional reactions to this traumatic condition. The “situational depression” you describe is very common following a serious diagnosis, surgery or not, as you try to make sense out of something that makes no sense. The good news: this kind of post-event depression is usually temporary and treatable.
Feeling like you’re “part of your family” again is probably the most healing treatment you could ever get at a time like that… Hang in there and celebrate your own second chances…
TaxLadyMel: Thank you so much for sharing this. Im 22 and I got OHS 8 months ago for the same reason: a large ASD. At first I was told that I wouldn’t need surgery, and my Doctor went back and forth as well.
I get depressed because my sternum still hurts, and many people think I’m making it up or that it’s in my head. It’s so frustrating when you don’t have anyone who understands. And when I tell the doctors about my pain and depression, they brush it off.
I am happy to be alive but OHS is traumatic and knowing that my body will never be the same is traumatizing. I’m getting used to it, still not sure how I feel about the scar. Some days I’m proud of it as a sign of strength, other days I just feel like it’s ugly. But thank you for sharing your story, it feels so much better knowing that I’m not alone and there are other women out there who understand how it feels.
It’s a strange battle I have with this scar. I had surgery 2 years ago and admittedly I hate this scar. It took me 2 years to be comfortable with its appearance thanks to my dermatologist (they were keloid-ed). Now they’re flat (thank you, thank you, thank you), albeit darker than the surrounding skin. Afer 2 years of hiding it behind high necklines, I’m ok now wearing a neckline a little lower than the base of my throat. Here’s the newest batlle: the recuperation after the surgery caused a tremendous strain on my relationship. Although my boyfriend spent a good amount of time caring for me at home, I recently discovered he had strayed and is now in a full fledged relationship with someone else. We’re breaking up. And I’m surprisingly ok with it. I had given myself 60 days to get back into the working world (for those desperately needed medical benefits) and save a little to get an apartment on my own. After all, I’ve got a college degree and was a professional for almost 30 years at one of the largest banks in the country. Well I am about 120 days out, and I still have no job. I seem to pass all the assessment tests, and actually have managed to snag a few interviews. I seem to interview well, but eventually the neckline moves and their eyes catch a glimpse
of the scar. Their smiles drop. The questions about physical endurance (sitting, standing, reaching, travelling, etc…pop up all of a sudden). And then omg..the ever dreaded pre-employment physical just kind of seals the deal. I am so frustrated. I am disillusioned. Probably close to 200 resumes out there.
The hiring folks are making me feel like a sickly 55 year old who’s going to kick the bucket before my probationary period ends. I’m ready for my disability to start now, thank you.
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Hi Judy – I’m sorry to hear of these recent events (as if you needed one more thing to worry about). Your boyfriend’s behaviour is not in fact uncommon: a study on partner abandonment among couples conducted at the University of Washington in Seattle found that men are six times more likely to leave a relationship because of a partner’s health crisis than women are. Not all men out there are like this, however – you are well rid of your guy.
It’s hard to feel optimistic after 120 days of job-hunting without results, but hang in there. If you suspect it’s your “neckline moving” that affects the outcomes of interviews (that might not be a factor at all – I’ve heard from a number of mid-50s women who don’t have a chest scar who report the same scenario so it could be due to the ageism that middle-aged women often describe). If you honestly believe your scar is the only reason, drape a nice scarf around your neck next time.
Good luck to you, Judy…
Judy – The problem is that you are 55. No one wants to hire us cause we might have health problems that are hard to insure. This is unfair as young people have pregnancies, addictions and other issues too. But it is what it is.
Keep trying because even if you have to go to work at a crafts store (I did with 3 teaching credentials!) and work with people who aren’t very professional which is such a disappointment but it will be a start. Then move on when the opportunity presents. Getting back in the swing of work will make you ready for a real job when it opens up.
PS I never wear clothing that shows my scar. I had to gut my closet and give my friends my favorite shirts. I used to dress sexy but now not so much. I loved those clothes!
I don’t hate my scar from Open Heart Surgery, l feel very blessed to have survived such a serious operation.
My problem is that it hurts so much & that most of the clothes that I wear that come in contact with the scar irritates it.
I can’t reach for anything nor turn my upper body around without feeling that stretching pulling kind of pain.
The keloids on my stomach where they put in tubes doesn’t hurt, they just itch a lot.
I can live with that.
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I’m so sorry to hear this, Norma… You didn’t mention how long ago your open heart surgery was. Scars are considered “immature” immediately after the procedure, and “mature” after about 3-18 months (depending on the wound). Please read Elizabeth Dole’s excellent advice for caring for scars here, especially for those immature scars. Best of luck to you…
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: * This comment has been removed because it was attempting to sell a commercial product *
I was born with congenital heart disease; had my first operation at 18 months and another at 4 years old. Last year I turned 24 years old and went through open heart surgery to replace my valve. Straight away, I wore tank tops and on holiday wore a low cut bathing suit. I know I got stares, but it doesn’t bother me as I’ve always had them.
In two to five months time I will have another to add to my collection as the hospital believes the valve is already narrowing. My scars are why I am here today and I wear them with pride, I will never hide them.
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Great attitude, Samantha! I often wonder if those who have always lived with scars from childhood heart surgery might have an easier time adjusting than adults who become first-time open heart surgery patients do. What do you think?
I just recently had bypass surgery due to 4 bad blockages, one 80% and called the Widow Maker. I ask My husband if he was embarrassed by my scars, he said No Way Honey!!! They are Your Miracle Scars!!! I am a Miracle so I wear my scars proudly
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Tammy, your hubby is a keeper! What a positive way to think of your scars…
Yes I have. It’s not pretty, I don’t like them on my body, yet I was ok with them really quickly after I realized what had happened to me. I’m not ashamed of my survival scars.🤗😍
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Thanks for sharing this, Nivia. It’s amazing how quickly our minds can do a quick turnaround once we realize the enormity of a medical crisis that caused those scars!
Today is my 2nd anniversary, I still can’t wear nice clothes or go in public. I can’t stand the stares and I will not answer questions. It is nobody’s business but mine and I think people who ask are either idiots or have very poor manners. I can’t be rude to people so I keep wearing t-shirts. Yes I have seen a few scars on others and mine is significantly wider and ugly. I have seen a plastic surgeon and it can’t be fixed. I will spend the rest of my life only going where I can wear t-shirts.
Brenda, you can wear nice clothes! There is no rule that says “nice” equals exposing your cleavage. I have had great luck finding tops described as boat neck, which means the neck is straight across shoulder to shoulder. Or scarves…if you are a scarf person (I am not)
Look online, in the states we have a store called Macy’s that carries a great variety of nice clothing. I have had no problems restocking my closet with clothing that does not expose my scar.
I understand your frustration because I love clothes and gave an awful lot of tops away after my surgery. Fortunately, the influx of older women having the $$$ has made retail clothing companies making more choices for those of us who don’t have to show their boobs off to make a statement. It’s more respectable. We are not meant to be sexual objects defined by how big our boobs are or how we display them.
As we age, I think covering more is actually sexier. Nothing worse than an old woman who wants to show off those babies accompanied by the wrinkles that surround them. I think it makes them look like stupid women who don’t value their age related experiences. Age makes us a lot more interesting.
That is what you want in life, a man (and friends) who value your mind, not your exposed breasts. You can be sexy with nice hair, cute shoes, keeping your body in shape. Skirts and pants that fit well, plus a top that is just as attractive without your boobs hanging out.
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Thank you Meridee – I like your response to Brenda. You are so right – choosing to hide a scar does NOT mean you are forced to wear T-shirts for the rest of your natural life. So many gorgeous styles to choose from – and the end-of-summer sales are starting now!
Perhaps because I live on the gulf coast blouses with high necklines are few and far between (boatnecks are too low as my scar is very high) or look like something for my grandmother. I have adjusted to my situation and am living my life. I’m not upset just resigned to my fate and only jealous occasionally. I am a nurse and wear scrubs, I cut t-shirts into “dickies” to wear under my scrubs and I am doing fine. Thanks for your suggestions.
Very interesting article! I feel so sad for the women who hate their scars or worry about people seeing them. I’m in the show it off category. I had heart valve repair on October 25th this year. I came to this site via Googling to see if a scar lasts forever. I’m perfectly happy with mine. It’s downright piratical. 🙂 It’s amusing watching blokes look at it and look hurriedly away. Good thing it lost the top bump swelling that looked like a cat’s bum! Now it just looks like my cleavage starts at my collarbone.
Surgeons do still use wires to close the sternum, at least where I live. I had wondered if it was a bolt-and-plate arrangement, it seems to weigh a ton, but no, the x rays show the wires very clearly.
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Hello Dépaysement! I’ve never heard anybody describe their open heart surgery scars as looking “piratical”! Great visual image there… I love your attitude towards your scar.
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LOL thank you, Carolyn! I’ve had a bit of a thing for pirates for a few years, so the scar fits right in. You should have seen my husband’s face when I mused about getting a matching tattoo, though.
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Born with congenital heart disease, I’ve had 5 open heart surgeries, first 2 open heart surgery surgeries at 5 yrs old, scar under right breast, 4 scars vertically from top of sternum to the bottom U in ribs. Biggest thickest scar was third open heart at 10 yrs old, fourth at 19, and fifth at 42. I had my spleen removed at 16, scar connects heart scar and goes down to pubic line, scar on throat, tracheal hole scar, feed tube scar, lung fluid hole scar, 4 pacemaker scars, stretch marks from my miracle son, numerous more scars all as result of heart…
I love everyone of my scars, wear bikinis, etc…I thank god everyday I’m alive. I am woman n machine! GIRL POWER!!!!! Your stories made me cry, tell you a little bit about mine…
THANK YOU!!! Nice sharing!
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Wow! Shauna, you are the poster child for GIRL POWER! So happy you weighed in here to share your considerable experience, showing all of us that no matter how many scars you acquire, you can still have a positive attitude towards each one. THANK YOU!
I’ve had two open heart surgeries, one when I was 4 years of age. I grew up not taking much notice of my scar and eventually it faded. 7 months ago and at age 24, I’ve just had another to replace my valve. My scar doesn’t bother me, it’s my battle scar which allows me to still see my family every day, and I’m so thankful to be given that chance. I know people look and wonder but I refuse to hide it away under huge t-shirts. I’m a survivor and I’m very proud.
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Love that sentiment, Sammy: “it allows me to still see my family every day”. Keep up that positive attitude!
I had Heart Valve Replacement on May 3,2016. I’m not ashamed of my scar, it just means I have a story to tell. People are even curious when I tell them the valve ticks! I love my scar especially knowing I was close to getting a backpack with oxygen and sent home to die.
I am lucky and yes people stare, they stop for a second and tell me I’m brave.. some just stare and get embarrassed that I saw them looking!
I’m a proud open heart surgery survivor.
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What a terrific comment, Trina! You do have a story to tell, and your scar tells that story.
I had my aortic valve replaced and a triple bypass surgery on June 23, 2016. The first four weeks after surgery were really hard for me. I literally could not sleep. It was like my mind was chattering and I couldn’t relax and sleep. I sat up most nights and cried. Also, had outbursts, threw fits with my loved ones who were trying to help me and cried almost every day.
I went for my eight week check up last week and I am doing much better. I am walking almost every day and will be starting rehabilitation classes next week. Even though this has been very hard for me to deal with (I think mine has been mostly emotional and mental).
My eight inch scar down the middle of my chest has not been a concern. It doesn’t bother me if it shows. Swimming is my favorite form of exercise. My doctor says that I can begin swimming after three months. I will have no problem being seen in a swimsuit. I feel that I have had years added to my life and for that I am grateful to my wonderful surgeon. I am 71 years young. I love my scar because it reminds me that I survived and I am still enjoying life.
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Thanks for this important reminder, Janice! How we feel in the very early days and weeks following treatment – no matter how emotionally traumatic that period may be – can and will change over time. Keep up with your walking, your cardiac rehab and your swimming!
Its been 10 weeks since my surgery…I am just about ready to go back to work…Oh yea I a had aortic valve replacement…. My scar is my issue. It’s so sore lately and today I see a small pimple right on my scar. Strange and it hurts…. Should I call my surgeon??
Hi Carol – I’m not a physician but I think you need to see one. Scars should be getting better over time, not more sore. You are still in fairly early days yet, but ask your doctor to take a look just to make sure this isn’t an infection.
It’s normal to see ‘pimples’ during the healing of your scar. I panicked and became more depressed, because it continued to look worse. I had a tumor removed from inside my aorta in November 2013 and it still hurts (sometimes worse than before the surgery) almost every day. My cardiologist told me some people get over it sooner than others, but I had no idea it would take this long.
I wish you the very best. Go back to work and try to find your new normal.
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