Robert Talbert

@rtalbert

Math professor, Dad, Catholic, cat herder.

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Recovery Marches on

Here's a quick update on my health and surgery recovery now that we've passed into March.

Shortly after the last post on February 20, I had an issue with irregular heartbeat. It wasn't a full-blown atrial fibrillation like I experienced in the hospital because my heart rate never really got elevated like it did then. But my heart would skip a beat, then add 2-3 extra beats, etc. etc. at random intervals. It felt like a muscle tic you sometimes get in different parts of your body --- a nervous twitch that you can actually see from the outside as the muscle contracts randomly. This went on most of one afternoon.

We called it into the nurses' office and because I wasn't experiencing shortness of breath or anxiety, they just said to keep an eye on it over the weekend, and the in-home nurse who's been coming in twice a week would run an EEG at my Monday visit. They suggested it was just an ectopic heartbeat where the upper and lower chambers of the heart start beating independently of each other. This is actually very common, in fact everybody has this happen to them regularly, we just usually don't notice it, like random muscle tics.

At the nurse's visit the EEG showed the irregularity, but still since I had no other symptoms, there was nothing really to do. As the nurse put it, when people poke around on your heart, the heart reacts and it just takes time for it to settle down. (I feel like there's a life lesson in there.) They drew blood to make sure certain mineral levels were OK, and everything came back perfectly normal. I feel fairly confident now that the irregular heartbeat thing was transitory, just another milestone toward recovery as my body acclimates to the new heart valve.

In fact it feels like the week that just ended held the most progress toward recovery I've had yet:

  • The irregular heartbeat has only come back a handful of times, and only in short episodes that last for a few minutes. Again probably everybody experiences this, we just don't notice because most people haven't just had major heart surgery.
  • The soreness and pain in my chest and back are still there, but less so every day it seems, and I can manage it with just a couple of doses of Tylenol each day. Getting into and out of bed has been a lot easier.
  • I'm able to do a 30-minute walk at a fairly brisk pace without my heart rate spiking. 10 days ago I was capable of two laps around Rivertown Mall; my heart rate would be in the 130-140 bpm range and I was exhausted afterwards. Yesterday I did 8+ laps and my heart rate never left the 110's, and it was the first day since before surgery that I rang up 10,000 steps on my FitBit. In fact there were moments on that mall walk where I really felt like I could have taken off at a jog and been OK --- which I did not do, because my doctors would kill me.
  • I've also starting doing more things in public, like going to a restaurant to eat (thanks to my friend Shelly Smith who came and kidnapped me this week and took me out for brunch) and going to Mass for the first time since before surgery.

Last week, too, I was officially discharged from in-home nurse visits. My bloodwork is completely normal, my EEG is normal, vitals (especially blood pressure) are normal --- there's no more need for close observation.

I can't stress enough the importance of physical activity in all this. I've discovered that a lot of the pain in my back that I've experienced isn't from the muscle and bone healing but from sitting down in a recliner for hours at a time. Just getting up and moving around both loosens up the muscles and builds strength in my legs and core, which helps with the actual soreness from my sternum healing up.

And while I've been avoiding public places because I am frankly terrified of getting a cold (the pain from coughing or sneezing is still quite intense), I think to really start recovering from something like this you need the presence of other human beings in your life.


I am still off from GVSU until April 8. Even when I return, there won't be much to do other than get my summer course ready and handle some personnel review matters.

In the meanwhile, I keep my day structured:

  • Prayer and writing in the mornings, followed by doing work on my summer course (a new prep for me so I want to get a strong headstart)
  • More writing (an upcoming article for Flipped Learning Today and new content for my blog at rtalbert.org)
  • Prepping for a webinar I am doing for Magna Publications in April, and some reading
  • Then my daily exercise (walking for 25-30 minutes while listening to audiobooks) followed by lunch; this week I may shift this to later in the day so I can go to GVSU to walk on the track, because pacing up and down my hallway for half an hour is super boring;
  • Then working through some DataCamp Python courses and reading books and research articles piled up in my reading queue
  • Toward the end of the afternoon I like to transition into language practice --- I am traveling to Brazil to give a workshop at the end of May and am trying to learn some Portuguese --- and more reading.

I put these into one-hour blocks and end each hour by getting up and walking 100-200 steps up and down the hall way or up and down the stairs. By the end of all this, it's 3:00pm and the kids are getting home from school, so I like to be done with all this by then and give them my attention (homework help, etc.).

I do make exceptions to this structure. Last Thursday (when Shelly kidnapped me) I just decided to blow off everything for the whole day. That was nice but I felt a little bit adrift. I'm just a person that needs a schedule to feel normal.


The next three weeks are going to be pretty eventful:

  • This Thursday (March 7) I go in for an echocardiogram and hopefully this will come back with no issues.
  • The following week (March 14) I go in for a chest x-ray followed by my big follow-up appointment with Dr. Leung, my heart surgeon, where probably a number of important things will be decided such as whether I am fit to drive and whether I can ramp up my physical activity.
  • The week after that, I start cardiac rehab (March 19) and have my final follow-up with a nurse practitioner (March 20), which might signify the official end of the main recovery period from the doctors' POV.

So we're sort of entering the home stretch.

This week is the start of Lent, and I am taking 40 days to completely unplug from all social media. I'll probably post some quick updates around the above dates and those will show up on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, but otherwise I plan to go dark. I'm hopeful that no other updates will be necessary. As I was told by all my nurse friends at the outset of this adventure, the recovery process is slow and arduous and there's not much you can do to speed it up (although a lot of things can be done to slow it down). I'm mainly focusing on being as active as I can be, both mentally and physically, while still meticulously doing exactly what the nurses tell me to do, no more and no less. That's been a winning combination so far, and I guess to sum all this up, it gets a little better every day.


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