Life Fighter & Heart Failure, Triple-Bypass Survivor
Continuing our Heart-to-Heart series — a conversation that tells the stories of those living with heart disease — today, we are so excited to bring you the incredibly inspiring story of Suzanne, an accomplished artist, world traveler, hospitality professional, and women’s health advocate who has regained full control of her health after surviving both Congestive Heart Failure and Triple Bypass Heart Surgery.
MOCACARE: Hi Suzanne! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and introduce yourself to the readers?
Suzanne: I turned 60 this month and currently live in Las Vegas, my home for almost 14 years. Up
until March 3rd, 2011, when my heart stopped from acute heart failure, I worked as a bartender and trainer at Olive Garden, did freelance graphic design for my own company, and worked extensively in some of the most beautiful countries in the world – always looking for the most physically adventurous and soul-enriching positions I could find. I also love to paint and am an accomplished artist.
MOCACARE: You mentioned your heart stopped from acute heart failure. What led to the diagnosis?
Suzanne: It’s a long story, but I think it will make the most sense if I start from the beginning. I come from a family with a long history of heart disease. Many of my immediate and extended family members had and have heart disease. Some requiring stents and bypass surgeries.
Of course, as serious as our family history was, I was uneducated in heart disease, and being young thought I was invincible – thus continuing my destructive lifestyle of smoking, eating badly, getting very little sleep, and maintaining extremely high-stress levels. Although I was very fit, my life was a yo-yo of gaining weight, losing weight, and continually pushing my body to the max.
My first indication of any noticeable heart distress happened in September 2010, when I was 54 – 7 months before my heart failed. I was experiencing chest pains and shortness of breath, so I admitted myself into a local hospital where a stress test, echocardiogram, and various blood tests were administered. Although my blood pressure was through the roof, they found nothing wrong and simply attributed my symptoms to a possible panic attack from stress. I was discharged the next day and was prescribed blood pressure medication. However, at the time I didn’t have any health insurance and very little knowledge of even basic heart health or risk factors. Being consistent about taking medication was not a priority for me.
My second episode occurred four months later, in January of 2011. I had quit smoking a few weeks before, not because I wanted to, but because I couldn’t do it anymore without searing pain in my shoulders and both arms. I went to Canada to help my parents tie up loose ends as they had just moved to a smaller residence, but I struggled to get off the plane because I could hardly breathe. My parents saw that I had no color in my face and immediately brought me to the hospital. Once again, the same tests were administered and nothing was found to warrant an angiogram, which would have been the only decisive measure that would have shown and warranted my distress. At this point, breathing was so difficult, I was barely able to walk 20 feet before having to grab onto something.
Despite all this, after that trip I went back to work, paying my coworkers to carry out some of my more strenuous activities. I saw a chiropractor every day for 2 weeks as I figured if it wasn’t my heart, it had to be my back. After my prescription ran out, I stopped taking my blood pressure medication, but I was starting to feel better, and only experienced a few episodes of dizziness.
MOCACARE: Wow, it looks like you had many of the heart disease symptoms that women usually experience — shortness of breath, fatigue, dizziness, and pain in arms — but the doctors still weren’t able to recognize them. That really goes to show how different heart disease symptoms present in women as compared to the “traditional” male symptoms, which are usually related to chest pain. How did doctors finally realize you were suffering from a heart condition?
Suzanne: After a long day of work on March 3rd, 2011, I went to a movie and late dinner to unwind. I don’t remember much from that night, apart from what people have told me. I was driving out of the parking lot when I hit a light pole, and was fortunate that someone saw me. They alerted security, who administered CPR. However, by the time paramedics arrived, I was in Ventricular Fibrillation, or clinically dead. They were able to revive me and I was transported to a hospital. I had an Ejection Fraction of 15%. This is the measurement of the percentage of blood leaving your heart each time it contracts. A healthy adult heart has an Ejection Fraction of 50 to 70%. Someone waiting for a heart transplant usually has an EF of 10-15%, and has trouble sustaining simple activity, like getting from a bed to a chair. My EF measurement showed that I had been in congestive heart failure for quite some time without even knowing it. It caused blood to be backed up into my lungs and explained the breathing difficulties I had been experiencing for months.
Upon arrival at the hospital, my heart stopped again and paddles were administered once more to revive me. I was put in “Code Chill,” or therapeutic hypothermia, where the body temperature gets lowered way down, making it easier for the body to rev up and get things going again. A heat pump was inserted to keep my heart beating.
Each day, doctors and nurses would report to my family and friends that I wouldn’t make it through the night and to prepare for the worst. The angiogram ordered by the cardiologist showed that 2 of my arteries were 100% blocked, and the 3rd was 85% blocked. However, I was not a candidate for bypass surgery because I was deemed not strong enough, physically and mentally, to undergo such a procedure. In the wee hours of the 4th night as they were trying to wean me off the heart pump, I kept crashing without its aid. I wouldn’t make it another day without surgery, so I was prepped to undergo triple bypass surgery. The cardiac surgeon did not hold much hope that I was going to make it through, as I was such a dire case, but somehow, I did. She, friends and family attribute me making it off the operating table to divine intervention and my strength of will. I also attribute it to my surgeon’s skill and determination!
MOCACARE: What was your recovery like? What challenges has your heart condition posed to you and your loved ones?
Suzanne: Recovery for the next 4 years after open-heart surgery was difficult for me physically, but far harder for my friends and family, emotionally. I was given a cocktail of medication that caused a plethora of side effects, including IBS, acute sinusitis, gastritis, depression and hypercholesterolemia, which I had suffered for years. I was referred to a specialist for each side effect. Nothing they tried gave me relief. I gained 40 lbs within 6 months and still could not walk more than 5 minutes without being out of breath.
During this time, my family and friends incurred the wrath of “pump head”. Simply put, it’s the neurological consequences of my bypass surgery, characterized by depression, mental haze, patchy recall, social difficulties, and personality changes. I cried for the first 6 months of my recovery, remembering nothing of my heart failure, 2 weeks prior to the event, or 2 weeks after. I was very difficult to get along with – crying one minute, angry the next. This continued and finally subsided after 3 years. My loved ones truly deserve a medal for their understanding and empathy.
We’ll be back tomorrow with the rest of Suzanne’s story – with more on her recovery and how she’s made significant changes to her lifestyle for the better; so stay tuned!
Updated: Read Part 2 of Suzanne’s Story here!