My Journey Through Heart Bypass Surgery

Stephen Tsai
February 06, 2017

In January 2016, local journalist Stephen Tsai underwent coronary bypass surgery. Here he shares his story as part of American Heart Month. 

I’m getting an extension on life thanks to Straub Clinic & Hospital, my brother-in-law “Popo” Chung, and the Village People. 

While dancing to the Village People’s spell-along “YMCA” at a holiday party, I managed to form the “M” when piercing pain shot through both arms and my chest. I contorted against the stage in a “C” formation. Popo gave me two aspirins to chew, helping the pain to subside. 

Later, several medical tests showed I had suffered at least two heart attacks that month. I was told I was lucky. One of the symptoms of coronary heart disease (CHD) is sudden death. 

An angiogram’s image resembled a connect-the-dots picture, with the lines as arteries and the dots as blockages. Several clogs were at 80 percent or higher. I was told I needed “cabbage.” I envisioned a run to the Farmers Market when I realized the cardiologist meant CABG — coronary artery bypass grafting. 

Friends and their parents assured me it was a routine procedure. One person said it was like “treating a toothache.” I learned CABG surgery involved dissecting my chest, “freezing” my heart, harvesting veins from my left leg (yup that's my leg in the pic) and wrist, rewiring my circuitry, and then wiring tight my chest. Well, a toothache and CHD share plaque as a contributor. 

I maintained an upbeat facade, but inside, I was terrified. My father, who also shared my cocktail of diabetes and heart disease, died 43 years earlier — at age 43 — while awaiting open-heart surgery. My mother’s screams from that day occasionally echo in my nightmares. I’m a writer, so I wrote “goodbye” letters to friends and each of my family members. 

As promised, the surgery went well. I had five bypasses. I woke up in the intensive care unit. My wife said sportscaster Jim Leahey had called, and I might have said “I love you” to him. I don’t remember. It turned out I said “I love you” to a lot of people — to the nurses who gave me extra crushed ice; to the aids who implored me to stand as if I were Rocky Balboa prior to the final round; to Dr. Mark Grattan, who performed the surgery, to the congregations that organized prayer sessions in Hawaii, California and Georgia. 

Since being released, I can drive, shower without help, and cough without pain. For several more weeks, I have to wear a “heart hugger,” which, everyone insists, resembles a “man-bra.” But it helps my chest. I’ve also learned to take my medicine faithfully, particularly dosages to treat diabetes, and to make smarter eating choices. That means eating more vegetables, even cabbage. Another lesson: The man-bra should be worn inside my shirt.

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