Monday, September 27, 2004

Lucky, Lucky Girl

Eight and a half years ago I had my heart stopped, my lungs rhythmically inflated and deflated by a machine, my back cut open 6 inches, and my ribs separated. A nice chunk of my aorta was removed and replaced by Gortex™. All this to cure a congenital birth defect called a coarctation of the aorta. I was twenty four. My little Frankie was 6 months old.

It was scary for everyone but me (and Frankie since he doesn’t remember it). I seem to have floated through that year and a half ordeal of diagnosis and correction in an oblivious fog. After a quick recovery, I started graduate school and went on with my life – and nary gave my condition a thought, except for the occasional recounting of the events to various medical professionals who found it fascinating. “Diagnosed so late in life, and while pregnant? How rare.” “And you made it through the birth ok? Hmm.”

I haven’t bothered to check in with my cardiologist for my annual check-up in four or five years. I barely thought about it. Sure, every year Mom and I go on the Heart & Stroke Mother-Daughter Walk. But that was it. Once a year I thought about how lucky I was to be alive, and then I went back to eating poorly and rarely exercising.

Until this year. After soliciting donations from my co-workers, I thought I’d check online (out of morbid curiosity) for some stats on coarctation patients. Here’s what would likely have happened to me if I hadn’t had my coarctation properly diagnosed and treated:

“The mean survival rate of patients with untreated aortic coarctation was 35 years, with 75% mortality by 46 years of age. Most developed systemic hypertension, usually during childhood, and ultimately, by the fifth decade, left ventricular failure.”

I’m 33. That means that I had a good chance of being dead in two years, possibly 13 if I were lucky. And I am lucky. I’m lucky that my doctor (whom I’d just switched to because I was pregnant) noticed my heart murmur and actually did some tests on it. Doctors had told me I’d had a murmur my whole life and no one, not one doctor had ever checked it out. And I was too young and stupid to know that it should have been checked. I was lucky that more tests revealed that I didn’t have a pulse in my ankles. Plus I had high blood pressure and hypertension during my pregnancy. I was luck that my cardiologist, GP, and OB were excellent, excellent, excellent. While they wanted me to abort the pregnancy, they were VERY supportive when I didn’t. There were 14 medical professionals in the delivery room with me and I was lucky that little Frankie has turned out fine.

I was basically given a second chance and I just about pissed it away. But with my Heart & Stroke guidebook in hand, I’m turning a new leaf. I’ve booked an appointment with my cardiologist. I’ve started taking a ½ hour to hour brisk walk every day (4 days and counting so far), I’m eating heart-friendly foods, and I’m going to get to my ideal BMI slow and steady – 1 pound per week. And, I’m realizing that it’s about being healthy (and alive), not about being thin. I’ve tried becoming more fit and failed in the past, but I never thought of it as life or death before. That changes everything.


At 5:36 PM, Blogger Oz said...

Wow. Are you more at risk for heart trouble now that your heart has been repaired? Or are you basically in the same risk category with everyone else?

At 6:45 PM, Blogger Diva said...

Wow, what a great story. Thanks for sharing it. I have heard so many people say that they have a heart murmur but they don't give it any thought either. Hopefully your story will prompt them to have it checked more thoroughly. All the best to you -

At 4:06 AM, Blogger Rich Rosenthal II said...

Living in a post heart attack house hold (not mine) has throughly motivated me to try as hard as possible to keep from having to undergo the chest opening thing. Even the chronically lazy can be motivated by fear of pain or death.

At 9:19 AM, Blogger Trillian said...

Thanks so much for your comments.

Oz - According to my life insurance premiums, I am at a higher risk for heart disease than a "normal" person, however, now that my coarc has been repaired, I'm more at risk for bacterial endocarditis (a bacterial infection in my heart) from my bicuspid heart valve than for a heart attack or hypertension.

At 8:42 PM, Blogger Wheelson said...

Good luck! Working to keep health issues from being a problem now can definately pay off when we're older. It's so much harder to solve heath issues later in life that your reminder to look out for ourselves now is good advice indeed.

At 11:26 AM, Blogger Carmi said...

We're glad you're around too, T! Your post should be included in publicity posters to get more people to practively work on improving their health.

My father ignored his health needs for decades and did all the nasty things that statistics say will get you into trouble - smoked, lousy diet, didn't exercise, etc. - until it was far too late. Between a silent heart attack, bypass surgery, valve surgery, and multiple surgeries to address post-operative staph infections, this is what now defines his life.

I'm sure if he could go back and execute the plan somewhat more intelligently, he would. But life doesn't work that way.

I'm glad to see you're ahead of the curve, and wish you nothing but a future of good health and happiness. Thanks for sharing this. It's an important issue to all of us.


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