February is America Heart Month.
Did you know that heart disease is the number one cause of death for women in the US? According to the CDC, 1 in every 4 females will die of heart disease. More than half of woman walking around today do not even know they have heart disease or any heart issues at all. Those numbers are staggering despite all of the prevention education and measures that have been around for decades. This is some serious stuff! So, to impress upon every women how important it is to follow up with your provider and have some simple screenings done annually, as well as healthy life style changes, Ashley has been gracious enough to tell us her story.
Just like you and me, Ashley was a healthy, active young woman with two young children. Ashley, however, was living life with a secret she didn't even know about until one day, she decided on a simple screening exam for her heart. This is Ashley's story:
February is American Heart Month. This month has become an important month because it represents the importance of spreading awareness for heart disease. It has raised awareness in my life because I am a survivor of a congenital heart defect.
My story begins July 2015. At that time, I had been employed with a hospital for five years. Each year they have offered a Heart Cart Screening for all the employees. I had never participated in the screening up to that point but decided that it wouldn't hurt to have it done. I had just turned thirty years old a month before and I do have a history of heart disease in my family. I lost my grandfather when I was twelve years old to a massive heart attack. When my father was forty-five years old he found out that he had had two major silent heart attacks that could have happened within a ten year span. He could have been as young as thirty-six years old and had a heart attack. Heart disease has run rampant in my father's side of the family so again, I thought it would be a good idea to at least see what the Heart Cart offered.
When I came in for my appointment, the nurse who was giving the screening walked me through the steps of what she was going to do. The first step was she took my blood pressure. My blood pressure was always on the low end so when it comes back in the 90/50 range, that was nothing that I was concerned about. The nurse then hooked me up to the EKG machine. I had never had an EKG done before and when I was watching it move, all I saw was a bunch of scribble lines. The nurse would look at me and then look back at the lines moving across the machine. Now, being an employee of a hospital, I know you cannot really give out any information without a doctor reviewing the results but the nurse had a look of concern. She had asked me if I had a primary physician. I never go to the doctor so at the time, I did not have a primary physician. The nurse suggested that I find one and gave me a print out of the EKG results. The print out of my EKG showed abnormal and I had a right bundle branch block. The nurse could not go into details on what that actually meant, but again, stressed that I follow-up with a primary doctor or cardiologist. Even with having an abnormal EKG, it didn't really hit me that something was wrong.
I contacted a cardiologist that did not require a referral and he reviewed my EKG. When he looked at it, he wanted me to come back the next day to have an echo-cardiogram (echo). The cardiologist said he had an idea on what I might have going on but the echo would confirm more. Still even then, I really didn't comprehend what was going on. I came back the next day and as the nurse was doing the echo, she paused and went to get the doctor. At that moment, it hit me that there was something seriously wrong. The doctor came in the office and looking at the screen, he told me that he was eighty percent sure that I had ASD which is atrial septal defect. Atrial septal defect is a “hole” in the wall that separates the top two chambers of the heart. The cardiologist explained that ASD is a defect in the septum between the heart's two upper chambers (atria). The septum is a wall that separates the heart's left and right sides. He was not actually sure how large the hole was so he referred me another cardiologist to have a trans-esophageal echo-cardiogram (TEE). As he was telling me all this, I was in complete shock. The cardiologist said that I had probably had this defect since I was born. He had said that when babies are born, it is not uncommon for there to be a hole but they close. In my case, it did not close and as I went through my life, the hole continued to increase in size.
After being diagnosed was ASD, we needed to find out how large the hole was so I went for my trans-esophageal electrocardiogram. It is a more detailed ultrasound that uses sound waves to give a clear view of the heart. It has to go through your mouth, down your throat and into your esophagus. It gives a very clear view of the valves and structure of the heart. After having this procedure done, I was referred to a specialist in Indianapolis. When I went to see the specialist, my husband and I felt some relief because the specialist explained the procedure to us. They were going to place a device called amplatzer septal occluder in the hole of my heart. It is a wire mesh made of a nickel-titanium metal alloy. Once the device is pushed out of the catheter, it opens up. The discs straddle the opening in the wall of the heart. It is not an invasive procedure and the specialist said that I would probably be in the hospital for only a day and off work for a week. I began to think maybe this isn't as bad as I thought it was not such a big deal.
Well, a couple days go by and then I received a call from the specialist himself saying that he had not received all of my test results the day I came in for my consultation. After reviewing the trans-esophageal electrocardiogram, the hole that was in my heart was too large to place the amplatzer septal occluder and that my only option of treatment would be to have open heart surgery. I hung up the phone with the specialist and I just started sobbing. I can't believe this is happening. I am only thirty years old. I am a wife and mother of two boys ages four and one years old and now I am being told that I have to have open heart surgery. It was news that I simply could not comprehend. Of course, I am tired all the time. I work full time and I'm a mother of two young boys and I am over weight. This can't really be happening to me but it was my reality. The doctors told me that they could not believe that I had two children with no complications at all. I was told that they could not believe with the size of hole that I had in my heart that I had not had a heart attack or stroke. I was told that had I not found the hole that I would not have lived a long life.
For the next few months, I had to go through a series of different tests. We had to make sure that I was healthy enough to have the open-heart surgery. It was a very stressful time for me because I was constantly living with the fact that I was a ticking time bomb. At any moment I could just have a stroke or a heart attack. I could collapse at any time and that could be it. I was in constant fear that I may not be here to see my boys grow up. After all the tests, we finally had a day set. October 9th, 2015 was going to be the big day. A date I will always remember because it's my husband’s birthday and in a way, a new birthday for me. Before the surgery, I will never forget that conversation that I had with my husband and it's a conversation that I did not think I would have to have at the age of thirty. In my household, I am in charge of making sure all he bills are paid and keep tabs of all the finances. I had to make sure that my husband was prepared for the worst possible outcome. If I wasn't going to make it through this, is he prepared to step in both roles as parent. It was a conversation we had to have because it was our reality.
The night before my surgery, I had my husband's family and my family gathered at my home. We spent as much time as we could because we didn't know how this was going to play out. We all gathered in a big circle and they lifted me up in prayer. We knew that whatever the outcome was going to be, it was all in God's will and we gave it to him. I kissed and hugged my children for what could have been the very last time. I started to cry and my oldest son kept asking “what's wrong mommy?” I couldn't tell him that I was scared that I was never going to see him or his brother again. I had to be strong and tell him that “mommy just loves you so much.” My children went to stay with my in-laws that night because I knew that the morning would be difficult and I didn't want them to see me that way. I didn't want them to think of me and be sad.
Morning came and I was standing in the shower. I had to bathe with an antibacterial soap in preparing for my surgery. I just stood there and prayed to God. Please Lord, let me get through this, let this just be another bump in the road of my life, let me have a chance to grow old with my husband and see my boys become men. As I continued to pray, I tried to make sure I was ready for whatever the outcome was going to be. It was surprising to me that I actually felt calm as we were driving to the hospital. At that point, I knew that whatever was going to happen was out of my control. I just had to put my faith in God and my faith on all those involved in my surgery.
When we got to the hospital, they put me in a room and started getting my prepped for surgery. I was cracking jokes with the nurses and my husband and parents were with me. My family could not believe how calm I was, knowing what was getting ready to occur. I held it together, up until the point that it was time for my husband and parents to leave the room. The fear of never seeing my loved ones came back into my mind. I kissed my husband and told him I loved him and to make sure the boys knew that I loved them. I hugged my parents and told them to make sure the rest of my family knew that I loved them. The nurse must have given me something to relax me because I don't remember them actually leaving the room.
The next thing I remember was hearing the voice of my pastor. I could hear him talking to my husband and father in-law. I thought “Oh my gosh, I died and I am at my funeral” but that was not the case. After four hours of surgery and being on a bypass machine, it was all over with. The surgery was a success. The surgeon said that the hole was about the size of a silver dollar which was bigger than they expected. I luckily had no other damage to my heart which the doctors could not believe. The worst of it was over but fun part was just beginning. I was in ICU for the first twenty-four hours. I don't really remember much that first day because I was heavily sedated and I was hooked up to a lot of machines. I had a chest tube that was draining fluid from my heart and had a copper wire connected to my heart. That was in case they needed to hook up a pacemaker. I was in a lot of pain from the surgery. There was about an eight-inch incision down my chest. I had become an official member of the “zipper club.”
I had spent a total of four days in the hospital. When we were pulling out of the parking lot, I remember that I had burst into tears. My husband didn't quite understand why I was crying at the time. I told him that I wasn't sure that I would be making that drive home and my emotions took over. Once I was home, the first couple weeks where a little difficult. During that time, it was very difficult because my children didn't understand why mommy couldn't pick them up to hold them or play like we normally did. My children would have to climb up my lap while sitting down and I would have to hold a pillow to my chest. Once I got through the first couple weeks, I started doing cardiac rehab. I would have rehab three days a week, up until the time I had to go back to work. I was off work a total of eight weeks.
It's been over two years since I had my open-heart surgery. I have had to go for routine check-ups throughout the last two years. I have been recently diagnosed with right side heart failure. My cardiologist believes it stems from the hole that I had. Although it was not the news I wanted to hear, I am still very lucky that we caught the defect and was able to repair it. At this time, there is no form of treatment for right side heart failure. I will have to continue to have check-ups and if I start to have swelling in my legs and stomach, then I will need to be seen. My cardiologist has said that fixing the hole in my heart has ultimately saved my life.
Looking back on everything I have been through, one thing I know for certain is that I have had God on my side since day one. People always say “things happen for a reason”. At this time, the screening that I had done is no longer offered. Had I not done the screening when I did, I would have never have known that I had a heart defect and I would have just died one day. I know that I have had a guardian angel watching over me my entire life. I am not trying to turn this story into a sermon, but it is my testimony. I believe that I am alive today because God has a plan for me. I'm still not sure actually what that plan is but it may just be to tell my story. If my story can help just one person look into his or her own heart health, then everything I have been through has been worth it. I hope all reading this will understand the importance of raising heart health awareness. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in men and women and it can affect any age or race. It does not discriminate.
February is American Heart Month. If you have never had an EKG or heart screening, it is so important to look into having it done. I know that it can be costly but if you have the means, please have your heart checked, especially if you have active symptoms that you may be having a heart related issue. I was fortunate enough to do the screening when I did. Had I not, I would have just been another statistic.