Joining the Zipper Club

By Leonard A. McHugh

On August 3, 2004 I became a member of the Zipper Club. This club was named for people who had open heart surgery. The name came from the surgical scar left on the patient’s chest. It’s hard to believe that just a few months before my life-saving surgery I had been walking all around Australia with no problems.

Several weeks after returning home from my Australia trip I took Indy, my Freedom Guide Dog, for a walk to visit my grandson. The walk is close to a mile with one large hill to climb. Near the top of the hill I found myself with some discomfort in my chest, like most people, I thought it was indigestion. Because I am a retired computer system analyst I tend to be very logical. To prove to myself that it was only indigestion, the next day I went on the same walk and again, near the top of the hill I found myself in pain. Since I know that I cannot recreate indigestion by simply walking up a hill, I knew it had to be something else.

Subsequently, I made an appointment with my doctor to discuss this newly developed medical problem. This resulted in an immediate EKG and a follow-up stress test. During the stress test, I again felt some chest pain. When I revisited the doctor’s office for the stress test results, it was decided that I needed a heart catheterization. I informed my doctor that in that case I wanted to go to the Lehigh Valley Hospital; surprisingly his comment was, “Good that is where I planned to send you.”

From the very beginning I had a good feeling about everything because the stress test had not indicated a major problem. A few weeks later I went into the hospital for the heart catheterization. I was upbeat about the expected outcome, I even joked with the doctor while he was performing the procedure. I told him a few jokes; we talked about blindness and the fact that I use all types of power tools. During the procedure he was raving about my heart and arteries. He kept saying, “Your heart is strong and there is no plaque build-up.” He went on to say that the walls of my heart were very clean and strong. He mentioned that I would probably be heading home in a few hours. He just had one more thing to check.

Shortly thereafter, he directed his assistant to start the probe up the left main artery, and the fun ended right there. He quickly told his assistant to stop because there was a blockage in the left main. The doctor then told me that I was a moment away from a major coronary. I was advised that this particular blockage could not be stinted and bypass surgery was the only option. If he would try to insert a stint it would result in instant death. He later told me they have a name for this particular blockage; it is commonly referred to as “the widow maker”. They told me how lucky I was because I not only had a warning, but I quickly acted on it. I have often heard about people who walked outside and dropped dead from a massive heart attack without any sign of trouble. Most people who develop the widow maker blockage never have any warning; or if they do, they tend to ignore it.

The doctor immediately changed his tune and assured me that I would not be going home that day. In fact, he could not even let me get off the table. He went on to say that if possible he would have me in the operating room that afternoon. This took place at about 11 a.m. and I was in surgery before seven the next morning. Fortunately, I had very little time to think and worry about the procedure. Unlike the last major surgery, this time I was talking to God and had a very good feeling, I felt like God was with me.

As I awaited the pending surgery, I requested that the hospital chaplain, who happens to be a friend, come to see me. Unfortunately, he was on vacation and another chaplain quickly came to my room. We had a long talk and said a few prayers after which I really felt relaxed. When I woke up after the surgery, which turned out to be a triple bypass, I felt absolutely wonderful. I had very little pain unless I tried to move, and of course, a cough or sneeze was not so pleasant. Everyone at the hospital was very kind and helpful; I do not believe that I could have received better care anywhere else.

Two days later when they removed all of the drainage tubes they wanted to take me for a walk around the halls. Since using my Freedom Guide Dog, Indy, I have become a very fast walker and distance is no problem. We typically walk about two and a half miles per hour. So when the two nurses tried to take me down the hall I was pushing them along, saying let’s walk. They kept saying “nobody walks this fast after cardiac surgery.” The next day I requested that my wife Karen bring Indy down so the therapist could watch how we work. I wanted to make sure it would be OK. After all, my chest was wired together and Indy is typically a strong pulling dog.

Let the show begin, I took hold of Indy’s harness and off we went. We were nearly walking our normal pace and I could hear comments from everywhere. I wish I could have received a dollar for every comment, “Nobody walks that fast after cardiac surgery.” I had almost no pain; but after the third trip around the halls they stopped me.

During my stay, a funny incident occurred with the cardiologist. Having been cleared to get up and use the restroom on my own, I was heading back to bed when I crashed into the dresser. Instantly I heard this voice shouting from way down the hall, “What are you doing? Are you trying to wreck the place on us?” I immediately took a liking to this man because of his wonderful bedside manner and great sense of humor. Although he is about an hour drive away, he is now my cardiologist.

Two weeks after the surgery I had a return visit with the surgeon. He wanted to make sure that my chest was healing normally. For some reason they have a routine speech that they tell every patient. When he told me that I would be able to drive in two weeks, I said, “If I knew that, I would have elected for this surgery thirty years ago.” I could tell that he was a little embarrassed when he told a blind person that he would be able to drive in two weeks. Actually I was very glad that he made that comment. For him to say that, he viewed me as a normal person and not someone with a disability.

About two weeks after I came home I started a six-week cardiac rehabilitation program at the Pottsville Hospital. The first thing they did was to put me on a treadmill, set at a one-half mile per hour pace. I found myself over walking the machine, smashing my feet into the front. I kept insisting that they increase the speed. Again I heard, “No one walks that fast after cardiac surgery”. I was not comfortable until the settings were changed to 2.2 miles per hour with a 3% grade.

Although they had pre-set goals for me, they were considerably less than the goals I had set for myself. On the machine where you use both your legs and arms with resistance, in four weeks I was able to use the maximum setting. My goal for the treadmill was a little more difficult to reach. I wanted to walk at 2.5 miles per hour with a 15% grade. On my last day of therapy I met that goal.

Editor’s Note: Lenny MCHugh is an At-large Member of PCB. He shares a number of his life stories and many blindness resources on his website:

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