The concept of "patient empowerment" is a very important approach in my practice. Heart health begins with learning about your individual risk factors for heart disease and developing a plan with your health care team to address your risks. Learning about the importance of your diet and exercise and the impact of your mind, body, and spirit on your overall heath is key. Knowledge and information can be used to empower instead of confuse or intimidate.
“Your body is your temple.” But what does that really mean? In medical school we learned all about the human organism. We viewed it through the lens of a microscope; we studied the different organs, systems, and interactions between them all. It is quite fascinating! But the simple truth is that we each get only one body, and how you take care of that body will determine how the soul within that body experiences life.
Exercise is essential for good heart health. You should talk with a health care professional before you begin any exercise program; however, simply walking more each day is a good start. Regular daily exercise of 20-30 minutes has been shown to reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol, burn body fat, relieve depression, and increase confidence and self-esteem.
I know healthy eating and daily exercise can be difficult—I’ve experienced it first-hand and still do. Years ago, I became so busy with school and work and didn’t have time to exercise or focus on my diet, at least I thought I didn’t. I was overweight and sluggish. One day, I decided to make a change: I was going to start running. I took a few running leaps, and barely made it down the block before curling up in a ball in a failed attempt to catch my breath.
It didn’t feel good. In fact, it felt pretty terrible. And that’s when I knew I had to keep going.
Five months after that morning when I couldn’t run a block without feeling like my chest was on fire, I ran the New York City marathon. When I crossed the finish line in Central Park in 2002, I felt like I was on fire again. But this time that fire was pride. I cried like a baby. Right there at the finish line.
Today, I still run. I went from dreading it to totally loving it. And my diet consists of low-fat, water-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables. Whenever I deviate from this menu and my running routine, my body lets me know with weight gain, sluggishness, and weakness.
Exercise is the elixir of life, energy, and vitality, and when exercise is combined with a balanced diet that fuels the temple, no limit can be placed on the body.
I tell my patients to assess and control their heart disease risk factors, such as blood pressure, weight, and cholesterol levels. This important exercise should not feel scary, and should empower you to make healthy lifestyle choices.
Take action and become your own health care advocate. Increase your exercise and moderate your food intake. Ask informed questions of your doctors and health care providers and be a partner in achieving total heart health. Exercise, a healthy diet, and empowering yourself with knowledge are three simple steps to better heart health and a happier mind, body, and spirit.
When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot become manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless, and intelligence cannot be applied.”
— Herophilus of Chalcedon, physician to Alexander the Great
How will you be remembered? Working in a hospital, especially with critically ill heart and lung transplant patients, puts that question to mind everyday. I often wonder what one thinks of in the moments before they die, or if they even know they’re leaving this world. My years of practice have cemented the belief there is an inextricable connection between the mind, body, and spirit. I felt this profound link before my career as a doctor even began, when a personal experience with a near-fatal illness showed me the power of the mind, body, and spirit connection. That experience, while traumatic, was undoubtedly positive: It helped form my perspective on health care and my approach to patient care.
Sometimes patients will ask me to pray with them, and I do. And while I never impose my personal faith beliefs on patients, I often ask for spiritual guidance in taking care of them. In my patients, I see every day how belief in a higher power helps them through scary situations. It helps the patients feel like they are putting their trust not just in me, their surgeon, but a power that serves to guide them. In that sense, they feel a sense of divine intervention. And everyone else—including all of the health care providers—is around to guide them through this journey.
However, as health care providers, we have become disconnected from this profound mind, body, and spirit link. Instead of learning about illness and death from a patient’s perspective, we learn about diseases in medical training; we study the body as organs, then as complex systems, and finally as separate disciplines such as gastroenterology or cardiology. Our medical evaluations are influenced by our training, and our assessments tend to be mechanical, empiric, and paternal rather than empathetic, caring, and educational. This model of care is passed to subsequent generations of health care providers, and continues to endure today.
Yet, I know patients experience illness in an entirely different way, and their perspective is drastically different from the provider’s. I experienced being patient. When patients are ill, not only is “one organ system” not functioning, their entire mind, body, and spirit is not functioning. This fact was illustrated well hundreds of years ago when Herophilus of Chalcedon, physician to Alexander the Great, observed: “When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot become manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless, and intelligence cannot be applied.”
I believe health care providers should take an empathetic approach to healing, to understand a patient’s mind, body, and spirit connection, as well as a patient’s perspective on their health, illness, and strength. I believe it is our duty, as healthcare providers, to guide patients and empower them to better health. It is this belief in a mind, body, spirit connection that guides me—and gives me strength—every day. And I hope it can give my patients strength, too.
As a surgeon, I often work with patients who are scared, lonely, and overwhelmed. Patients may experience heightened anxiety and feelings of loss of control before and after a life-changing surgery. And I tell patients, “You have just gone through a scary, traumatic experience. But you are still here, you are still alive, and today is a new day and new opportunity.”
Of course, everyone’s experience is unique. And that applies to surgery, too. However the feelings of depression and anxiety post-surgery are universal—they are normal. And you can take comfort in the fact that every heart and lung surgery patient is dealing with the same issues, just on different levels and on different days. Each patient moves through the surgery and recovery process in their own way, experiencing their own feelings, discomforts, and fears. But in time, you will get past these issues to live a fuller, happier life.
In fact, I tell my patients, “It will take six months before you feel fully recovered.” This doesn’t mean you will always feel terrible. Just that each day gets better until you feel 100 percent again. Take comfort in that each day is different and new—and better.
During this long recovery process, there will be days when you feel great, and days when you will feel overwhelmed and tired. But do not be alarmed by these swings. Instead, think about it as a natural process of recovery. Keep things in perspective, and remember that you will feel better next week than you feel this week.
Allow your mind and spirit to experience these feelings, and know that you will feel stronger, happier, and healthier again. You have just undergone life-changing surgery. These feelings are normal. But you can counter that fear, depression, and anxiety with the knowledge that you are still here on earth. And now that your blockages are addressed and your heart can get blood, you don’t have to worry so much about your heart. Your heart is better. Your body will be better. Today is a new day. Today is a new gift.
WHEN WILL I GET MY ENERGY BACK?
Major surgery puts stress on the entire body. Feeling tired is normal; it is part of your recovery. You will experience days when you have more energy and days when you have less. This is to be expected. Do not feel overwhelmed by this. You should expect to have more normal energy levels in six to eight weeks.
During the first few weeks, taking naps is to be expected. It’s a healthy part of your recovery. But be sure to do it on the couch or in a napping area, so that your bed is only used for nighttime resting and your sleep patterns can more quickly return to normal.
I DON’T HAVE AN APPETITE. IS THIS NORMAL?
Yes, losing your appetite and losing weight is to be expected. Surgery affects the entire body, including the gastrointestinal tract. It could be two to three weeks before you regain your appetite. However, a healthy diet is important to recovery. If you are feeling nauseous, let your doctor know so they can prescribe something and ensure you are getting the necessary nutrients for healing.
WHY DO I FEEL DEPRESSED AND ANXIOUS?
There are times you will feel anxious and depressed. It happens to everyone: All patients who have major surgery will experience these feelings in some form. Some patients might express more feelings than others. You have just gone through a traumatic experience. Nightmares, sleeplessness, depression, and anxiety: These are normal. And they should pass.
Remember: You have just spent time in a hospital, where your sleep has been regularly disturbed. Hospitals can be scary places with unfamiliar sounds and environments. You might sympathize with the patients at the hospital around you. In some ways, these feelings can be like post-traumatic stress disorder.
From a mind and spirit standpoint, allow yourself to experience this and know that you will feel better. Again, it can take six to eight weeks, sometimes more, to begin to feel normal again. If you are still experiencing sleeplessness or depression two months after your recovery, consult with your physician who can prescribe something to help get you over the hump—something everyone experiences.
I SOMETIMES FEEL HOPELESS. IS THIS NORMAL?
Yes, like the depression and anxiety, a feeling of hopelessness is normal after traumatic surgery. But remember: You are healthier now than you were before surgery. You might experience some limitations, but they are less limiting than when you had the blockage pre-surgery. Try to counter these feelings with the spiritual reflection that you are still here. You are still alive. And you still have an opportunity to make good in the world.
Today is a new beginning. And with every day you will get better. Every day is an opportunity. And every day is a reminder to never sacrifice the gift—to embrace the opportunity for new experiences; to tell your family how much you love them; and to focus on the gift of your unique mind, body, and spirit and the guidance they provide every day.