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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.