I have always tried to be healthy – I go to the gym to workout, eat healthy, rarely drink, never smoked, and yet I am a survivor of heart disease.
It started years ago when I learned that I had a heart murmur. The heart murmur required no medications, but just something one lives with based on its condition. Over the years, it was monitored by a cardiologist until one day in 2013, when my status changed.
I was experiencing chest pains due to pneumonia, not once, but twice. This concerned me, so I went to my General Practitioner who advised that I have an echocardiogram and a consult with a Cardiothoracic Surgeon. After meeting with the Cardiothoracic Surgeon, and reviewing my echo-cardiograms and past records, I was told that I did not meet the criteria for open heart surgery which was typically performed when someone is older, less active and with a family history. Also, the surgeon said they only operate when the diameter of the aneurysm reaches 5.5 centimeters. My measurement was a 4.8. They sent me on my way – without any follow-up appointmens and was told to go back to my cardiologist.
I knew that I did have some family history of heart disease and although they didn’t feel I was a candidate – I can tell you, IF I had NOT questioned the evaluation, I would not be here today.
This is MY health and yet a small voice inside me said keep going and just live my life. If the surgeon was not worried, why should I be concerned? I had no medical background and more importantly – NO SYMPTOMS.
The holidays came, life got busy and I put my health to the backburner.
In the meantime, my sister who enjoys doing research, looked into the John Ritter Foundation to see what else we could learn about Ascending Aortic Aneurysm. I decided to call the Foundation and the representative asked, “Are you in Connecticut?” I said “Yes”. The representative said, “Do you know you have a “Rockstar” right in Connecticut at the Yale Aortic Institute?” I had no idea!
I was grateful to learn it was Dr. John Elefteriades- commonly known as “Dr. E”. But what is the likelihood I can meet a famous surgeon at Yale? I saw he was having a book signing at the Yale bookstore and off to Yale we went! The book signing was where my husband and I met Dr. E for the first of many times to come. He was so great to listen to my situation and after hearing my story – he wanted to review my records.
For those of you who do not know Dr. E., he is one of the most accomplished aortic surgeons in the world – and created the Aortic Institute at Yale. It was this initial meeting that I knew good or bad, regardless of the outcome, was the doctor I was going to entrust to take care of my heart.
After my evaluation with Dr. E., he advised me I needed surgery sooner than later. Even though he agreed with the first surgeon’s diagnosis of the anueryism, He explained that in his research/ experience the diameter of the aorta was relative to the patient’s size ( height and weight). It was just about 7 weeks later I was on the operating table with what was to become, one of the most difficult aortic dissections Dr. E. had experienced – his words – not mine. The ascending side of my aorta was dissecting during surgery as he operated on me for a little over 7 hours.
To say I was relieved to know what it was, and have it corrected is an understatement.
At my 1 month follow up, Dr. E. asked about my siblings – knowing this heart condition can be genetic. My sister was examined and thanks to Dr. E, was found to have the same heart problem which could be corrected to save her life. And only 5 months after my surgery, she was having the same open-heart surgery and the same mechanical valve was placed.
The efforts of Dr. E and his team at the Aortic Institute, along with the American Heart Association are making great progress to fight heart disease. There are more and more women and men being saved as a result of challenging the “typical patient” characteristics of heart disease. Because of that, my sister and I are gratefully here today.
No one would ever choose to have a health crisis of any type, especially one which has no symptoms, is genetic, and can kill you instantly like anuerysm. And in the case of anuerysms if there is a close relative who has experienced one, you have a 21% greater chance of also having one. My sister and I are so blessed to have survived this experience.
We do not get to choose our genes, but I am here to tell you please to know yours. Learn your family history and don’t give up if that little voice in your head tells you something is off.
We, as women take care of so much for so many – whether it is a friend, co-worker, parent, child or someone else who is important to us. It is easy to ignore vague health issues which may be overshadowed by the attention and commotion of everyday life. I hope my story inspires others to take time to care for yourself. Remember, you are not replaceable.
People say to me, “You are so brave”. I saw a quote once that sums up how I truly feel: “Being brave, doesn’t mean you are not scared, it just means you go ahead and do it anyway”.