Her Own Surgery Prepared Her For Book



By David Collins | For The New Mexican
May 23, 2007

Maggie Lichtenberg didn't believe her doctors when they told her it would take six to eight weeks for her to recover from open-heart surgery. Her congenital heart problem didn't cause the debilitating symptoms one might expect from a heart disease.

"I did not consider myself sick. I thought it was just a little structural fix-me-up," she said.
It turned out her doctors were right. It wasn't just the incision in her chest. "Your whole innards have been hugely mixed up," Lichtenberg said of open-heart surgery.

Five weeks after her July 2003 surgery, she started a list of things she wished she had known before the operation. She decided her list represented the kernel of a book that could help others navigate the perilous shoals of open-heart surgery.

During the next few months, she started a journal, drafted a few chapters and wrote a book proposal. She conducted interviews with more than 65 caregivers and heart patients.

By January 2006, The Open Heart Companion: Preparation and Guidance for Open-Heart Surgery Recovery was ready for publication. Lichtenberg shared ideas from her book in a presentation Thursday at Vista Grande Public Library.

The Open Heart Companion reads as much like a tour guide as a medical self-help book. Lichtenberg draws on her own experience to warn others of pitfalls, setbacks and challenges they are likely to face at each step of the journey.

One-fourth of the book is an autobiographical account of her experience, and the rest is advice drawn from interviews with heart patients and their caregivers. Learning what to expect from those who have been there can help one prepare mentally, emotionally and practically for the trauma of surgery and post-surgery care, Lichtenberg said. A little preparation can go a long way toward reducing stress, she said.

"What I was after was to reduce the stress," Lichtenberg said.

The book is as useful for friends or relatives who serve as home-based caregivers as it is for heart patients themselves.

Get others to help, Lichtenberg urges caregivers. Expect to be overwhelmed by the loved one's needs when he or she comes home from the hospital.

She extends the same advice to patients: Line up volunteers and schedule friends to cook dinner so no one person carries the entire load.

The book focuses on recovery from heart surgery, but a successful recovery with minimal stress often starts before a person is admitted to a hospital, she said.

In Lichtenberg's case, she had time to plan for predictable aspects of the experience but lacked information about minute details.

Her planning advice starts with selection of a hospital and physician. A second and even a third opinion can be worth the out-of-pocket expense if these aren't covered under a health plan, she said.

Get to know the facilities where you will spend up to four hours with a heart-lung machine doing the work of the heart muscle, she advised. Visit the intensive-care unit and become familiar with presurgical procedures.

Some understanding of possible postsurgical complications can prepare a person to navigate problems as they arise, Lichtenberg said. In her case, she started feeling weaker long after her doctors told her she should be feeling better. "I could hardly hold up a bath towel to dry myself," she said. The cure was so simple and inexpensive it was embarrassing, she said. Over-the-counter iron supplements are a standard treatment for anemia, but some people don't realize anemia can be a problem. Anemia can be identified by a simple blood test.

Had she known about the common risk of anemia following cardiac surgery, Lichtenberg said she would have consulted her doctor sooner when she experienced the symptoms.

She attributes her failure to adequately prepare herself for open-heart surgery to a human tendency to deny the gravity of impending hardships. Her book sales would probably be even stronger if others weren't also prone to deny the inevitable, she said.

As books go, Lichtenberg's self-published guide is little more than a blip on the radar of the publishing world. For a self-published author, though, The Open Heart Companion has been a stunning success.

"I've more than broken even because I've sold 4,000 copies in such a short time," she said.
Many of her sales are generated on the Internet. "A lot of people all over the world just buy the e-book," she said.

Her own surgical experience provided the conceptual background for the book, but it was her professional experience at major publishing houses that prepared her for success as a independently published author. She worked as a marketing manager at Bantam Books (now Bantam-Doubleday-Dell), as a senior editor at Simon and Schuster Inc. and as marketing and sales director at Grove Press (now Grove Atlantic). She also was a marketing director at Beacon Press.

With knowledge of how the publishing industry works, Lichtenberg was sure she would be better off delegating some of the work. She hired Blessingway Author Services in Santa Fe to handle details, including hiring a printer and getting a Library of Congress number. She had prepublication copies reviewed by the prestigious Library Journal. That review was available in time to include in the second edition, which resulted in better sales, she said.

Lichtenberg has since started a telephone support group, which she operates via weekly conference calls from her home office in Eldorado. She has also started a Web site for heart-surgery patients, which currently appears near the top of Internet search results; it was fourth among 1.4 million results in a recent Google search for "heart surgery recovery."

Contact Maggie Lichtenberg on the Web at www.openheartcoach.com.


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