I was a 48-year-old female, a wonderful husband, 2 college aged children, an educator, and had an amazing tribe of family and friends. I felt at the peak of my life, health and fitness. I had devoted the previous 5 years to training for 5Ks, 10Ks, ½ and full marathons, with optimal nutrition being key. I felt balanced and on top of the world. In August 2017, I received a phone call that changed MY path for many months to come.
Backing up 26 years, I was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer, I had no symptoms. I am forever grateful for Dr. Gene McNeeley, MD as he monitored my health closely as a result. In 2014, I had a minor surgery and had postop arrhythmias. Dr McNeeley referred me to a cardiologist, which led to a placement of a heart monitor. I was never diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat but had an echocardiogram to complete the evaluation. The report indicated a small mass on the mitral valve which was consistent with fibroelastoma and to repeat in a year. I was told to follow up immediately if I had any symptoms such as pain, shortness of breath, and exhaustion. It was a tough year, as the report weighted heavily on my mind. I immersed myself with family, pursuing health and race training to keep my mind occupied. I was tired all the time but brushed it off as “exhaustion is what happens at this point in my life”.
During the summer of 2017, my general practitioner had me repeat the echocardiogram. Shortly after the appointment, she called to let me know it was necessary to follow up with a cardiologist. What? How can this be? I am feeling fine, other than being tired. I am in the middle of training for a ½ marathon, I return to teaching in a few weeks…… Six long, worrisome, weeks later, the cardiologist explained that the small mass was still present and scheduled me for a transesophageal echocardiogram to confirm. Two weeks later, my husband joined me to the follow up appointment. We were taken to a consult room, not the regular exam room. It was at that moment, I KNEW something was not right. The cardiologist explained that the mass was indeed a fibroelastoma. I was told the possibility for embolization and stroke if not removed and was scheduled to meet with a heart surgeon. To this day, this particular cardiologist appointment is a blur. What? Me? Open Heart Surgery with cardiopulmonary bypass? How is this happening? I take care of myself, I exercise, and for goodness sake, I’m ONLY 48 years old. I have a husband and 2 children that I love dearly and are the center of my universe.
October 2017, my husband and I met with Dr. Marc Sakwa, MD, Cardiovascular Surgeon at Royal Oak Beaumont Hospital. During the consultation, Dr. Sakwa explained my options and the risk of having vs not having surgery. After much discussion and many questions on our end, I decided to no longer continue with medical therapy for fear of embolization and stroke. Although I was paralyzed with terror of Open Heart Surgery, I KNEW I didn’t want to fear each day wondering if “today” would be the “day” if the mass was not removed. It was determined I would have minimally invasive removal of the mass with radical mitral valve reconstruction on November 14, 2017.
Although I was scared, angry, shocked, and wanted to “wake up from the bad dream”, I continued to focus on my health, ran the full marathon, which was a personal best time by 43 minutes. Ten days later, Dr. Sakwa and his team performed my Open Heart Surgery.
After I was discharged from the hospital, I was terrified. Many days, I was brought to my knees, prayed for strength and for the nightmare to go away. I dealt with pericarditis for almost 2 months. Participating in Cardiac Rehabilitation at Royal Oak Beaumont, Farmington was crucial for my recovery both physically and emotionally. On session #1, I cried as I walked at a turtle pace on the treadmill. I continued to show up and give it my all. My cardiac rehabilitation nurse instilled the importance of the program for all so that time is set aside each day to take care of our health. I learned about monitoring my own heart rate when for when I would be able to return to running on my own. During my last session, #36, I ran a treadmill 5K.
June 2018, it seems like just yesterday I was recovering in ICU, I can STILL see, smell, and hear as if I was in hospital, being cared for by the amazing staff. It has been a long, roller coaster recovery with many unexpected setbacks. Without the support of my amazing medical team and tribe of family and friends, I would not be where I am today.
Heart problems do not discriminate. Other than being tired, I was asymptomatic and if it was not for me being compliant with medical follow ups, my story could have turned out much worse. My heart experience shook me to my core. I chose not to give up, but rather come out on top on the other side. Please remember to take care of yourself each day, control what you are able to in regard to your health. You deserve nothing but the best. Each day is a gift! Take care of your heart.
I pray that as each of you continue on your heart journey, that you remember this: “And one day she discovered that she was fierce, and strong, and full of fire, and that not even she could hold herself back because passion burned brighter than her fears.”
Be Well ♥️