Last July, I became a #zipperclubmember. This is not a club that you would strive to be in and probably don’t know exists until someone in your family joins it. I joined as an #openheartsurgerysurvivor … Those words still sound strange saying them aloud. I was born with a bicuspid valve instead of a tricuspid valve. Over time the valve began to leak due to increased stress and lack of caring for myself mentally and physically. I started having several unrelated symptoms, and it took us about 3 years to figure out was what was causing the problems. After a MRI found that my valve was leaking 30%, we realized I wasn’t getting enough oxygen mixing with my blood. This can obviously cause other organs to have problems, so I went to a surgeon to discuss options. I still hadn’t really processed surgeon = surgery, so when the words “open heart” surgery was mentioned it took me a minute to follow. I heard the words you can choose a tissue valve or a mechanical valve. I was then sent to make an appointment for surgery. I was alone and as I sat with the lovely nurse who was explaining this I was thinking, “Is this really happening? I mean is this a real option for me…” She asked me to pick a date and I picked the very last day available. I was just giving myself as much time to get out of this as possible. Surely, there was another option. I started to cry. The nurse prayed with me and that seemed to calm me down enough to get to the car. I sat and stared out of the parking garage in downtown Birmingham. The world turned blurry. Surgery was not something I wanted to do. I almost walked in there and said, “You should just cancel that appointment… I will just wait until it gets worse.”
A mechanical valve sounds cool and all, but I did not want to be on blood thinners at 40. I also didn’t like the idea of making my family go through the surgery again if I chose the tissue valve that would wear out in 10 years. I also knew my brothers would be making the sounds of whatever animal it was every chance they got. These were not good options for me. There was a chance he could repair it. That’s what he said repair OR replace… I held out hope that they could repair it. It was the best case scenario and I prayed for that. As I posted to social media and told friends and business partners about this, I received a ton of support and encouragement. There really are too many to mention here. Let’s just say… there is no way my subconscious can ever trick me to think no one cares about me again. I have the proof that many people love and care about me.
I will mention a couple people who’s words still ring in my ears.
Andre Davanzo. Thank you for telling me I shouldn’t wait that I should do it sooner than later. Thank you for saying, you need to take care of yourself and putting it in a way I could understand. “Do it now because your family and friends are going through this with you, and you don’t want them to have to wait and worry.” I took that advice and called and changed the appointment to an earlier date. Andre… Thank you also for video calling me to make sure I was ok when I still had a tube in my neck. I will never forget it even if I was on some heavy drugs then
During this time, I would daily question if my family would be better off if I didn’t’ make it. I mean I had good life insurance. These were the mental battles that no one likes to talk about, but I struggled with these type of internal thoughts. Then, I received a card from Amanda and Matt Hoffpauir. At the very end it said, “The world needs you Charli!” My daughter was actually in the car with me and because I was driving she read it to me. In that moment, something clicked and I know there was only one Charli and my family needed me… Just me to be there for them.
The next person changed the way I showed up for the surgery. Mike Griffin aka Griff. He is also an open heart surgery survivor. He told me his story, welcomed me to
the #ZippperClub, and showed me his scar. Next, he told me to go into the surgery with a warrior spirit. He told me how he went into his battle determined to win and get out of the hospital in record time. It was a little bit of a competition, and it was exactly what I needed to hear. I immediately pictured Gal aka Wonder Woman headed into battle with bullets flying at her… she was unstoppable in a battle only she could win. I was ready for battle. I had a warrior mindset. I would win.
I woke up from surgery with the breathing tube still in. I motioned for a pen and wrote, PIG? Carter said, “No, they repaired it! I am still amazed he knew what I meant. In that moment, I knew everything was going to be ok, because I knew without any doubt, God had answered my prayer and was right there with me through the surgery guiding the surgeon’s hands. I mean how does a valve just start again after 40 years being soldered together. It was a miracle. I was incredibly thankful! I relaxed… Then, I heard my mom tell me to breathe. I remember thinking ok yes, Breathe Charli… Yes! I want to breathe on my own. Mom had told me how important that was before I went under. I took a couple breaths and out came the tube… Now, it was time to get to work recovering… This was the real battle.
That first night was awful. I was nauseous, and I could not get enough pain medicine. I got sick over and over until this Angel gave me a sponge bath, and I was finally able to calm and go to sleep. The next day, I moved to a room where my mom and Carter could be with me. I was given instructions on how to breathe into a spirometer or what I liked to call the lung capacitor, a Back to the Future reference… It was a struggle to take a deep breathe, but each time I did it I felt like I really did something. Each time I could take a deeper breather or more reps, I felt I had made it to the next mile marker in this marathon. Seeing how I couldn’t do much else, I focused on breathing. There were fluid tubes everywhere: A tube in my neck, two coming out of my lungs, a catheter, two that filled up these air wraps on both legs, and an IV. Let me just say… I was barely able to say the word tube before my surgery without getting nauseous, and now they were all around me. I have never cared much for medical talk and the nurses in my family who love all those details know not to talk about that around me! I knew this was going to be hard for me, so I literally told myself over and over before surgery… Tube are good. They save lives… Tubes are the best thing for you. Just to prepare my brain for what I knew would send me spiraling if I didn’t prepare.
So, I set out to master the deep breathe. I did it! Then I got to move from the bed to the chair. I realized that if I did one task, I would get to try another. So, I kept taking the next step… I went from the chair to the bathroom. Then, I went down the hallway. I still remember seeing another woman that came in the same day I did for surgery, and I thought, “I am doing better than her. Keep fighting warrior…” I took a larger walk. The first day I walked I was scared that I would not have the strength to make it much around the corner, I would turn around. I could just see me fall laying with all the tubes, gown open, butt shining… The next day I decided I would walk the full hall, and if I passed out with all these tubes and my gown open so be it. I would at least know my limits. I did it… I made it down the hall and back. I was able to take all the tubes out. The tubes that were in my lungs were the last to come out. I was a wake for this. They literally just told me to take a deep breath and then blow out. While I blew out, they pulled the tubes out… It was the most amazingly awkward rewarding feeling I have ever experienced. My reward… a shower! Even though it was sitting down on one of those medical chairs with a handheld sprayer, it was heavenly…
It was time to go home. The battle continues…
I kept this mindset once I got home and pushed myself to do “one more” each day… one more walk to the mailbox, one more 5lb weight rep, one more bite of chicken casseroles… It was a process, and I was prepared for that. I was not prepared for the mental struggle that would take place next.
My scars. One LONG scar down my the middle of my chest and two “tube” scars just underneath.
Each day, I was a little stronger and would continue to do my walks around the house. I would wear my robe pajamas that wrapped and allowed my scar to be open and heal. It was on display. I saw it constantly with all the mirrors in our home. It made my children uncomfortable. So, I would try to hide it with my robe pajamas as best I could when they were around. But there is not hiding this scar. As it healed I was instructed to put oils and lotions on it to help the scar. I did this everyday. Everyday, looking to see if the scar had changed. Was it fading? The answer was NO. I would get in the shower to clean it and cry. I cried a lot in the shower. It wasn’t that I didn’t like having a scar. I think scars are cool, and I already had a C-section scar so I was use to that. It was that every time I got out of the shower, the mirror was there to show me the scar and remind me how WEAK I was…
My entire wardrobe seemed to be some sort of V-neck collection to showcase I was injured. I went through my clothes throwing out my favorite items that I no longer felt comfortable wearing. I would look through my photos and see my chest in my favorite V-neck shirt or dress without a scar and think… Well, that is no longer me. My favorite dresses and styles would need to change. All I could think is who am I. The way I expressed myself through fashion had changed forever. I didn’t know how I wanted to show up. I am not one to hide. I was so uncertain. Should I be hiding this scar? I know it makes people uncomfortable. Hell, it made me uncomfortable! I didn’t know what to do… The strong lady I saw in my photographs had disappeared for me. She was lost. I was sad. So, I grieved. I gave myself space to do this. Three months later after binge watching Chicago Med and watching all the up-close surgery action I could find (part of my healing I suppose), I began to see my scar as a symbol of my courage.
I have to thank my coaches Susan Hobson and Rob Kalwarowsky for allowing me to share about my surgery on the Leadership Launchpad Podcast. I just recently listened to it, and I know that was a turning point in my journey. I was then able to share it on the stage at the American Heart Association’s Worksite Wellness event. I had done the work to get myself back physically and on mission.
You can listen to it here:
In September, I had made it to 3miles walking with intervals of running just in time for the Grundfos Water for Water. This really was my motivation. I wanted to be
able to post that I had done the virtual 3 miles. This was an eternity on a treadmill for me back then… I was bored after 1 mile. I learned that if played my cardio pop music and did more of dance walk. I could make it. It was a mental test. I finally passed it. This also allowed me to be ready for the Empowering Women stage in Chicago in Oct. This was my ultimate goal. I wanted to show up with energy as myself. The whole conference was themed #BeYourself. I was there and I felt I had won the battle!
In reality, it took me a few more months and a hysterectomy to work out all my health issues. Today, I feel that we have uncovered the energy I have been missing for decades, but I still felt I wasn’t fully healed.
Going through this trauma and listening to others stories has taught me, everyone overcomes obstacles in their own way. I know for me I must tell my story to heal… I must show my scar… I must not hide to live in my truth.
Life goes on and we must keep moving as well. Take the Deep Breath, Take a Walk, Benge some random TV, do whatever it takes to walk in your truth!
My truth is… I am a survivor. a courageous warrior who went straight at the problem and I happy to show off my victory scar with all my fellow zipper clubs friends. Cheers to all of you bold beauties! #scarsarebeautiful #zipperclubmember #openheartsurgerysurvivor #mentaltoughness #selfdispline #nationalzipperday #empoweringwomeninindustry #empoweringwomen #wonderwoman #charlimagic