Noticing Subtle Warning Signs Prevents Heart Damage
When Kathy Shepherd learned her heart was in trouble, her first reaction was disbelief. “What are these crazy people talking about?” she remembers asking herself. “They have the wrong person.”
Well, maybe she was huffing after climbing a staircase. And she did have that achiness in her arm – probably just from moving furniture around during the holidays. “I put it off to being plain out of shape. It never entered my mind it was a heart problem,” says the 68-year-old Northern Kentucky resident.
The vague symptoms she mentioned to her primary care doctor at an annual physical last year set in motion an EKG, stress test and angiogram.
As interventional cardiologist Mohan Brar, MD, performed an angiogram at St. Elizabeth Healthcare to look at Kathy’s coronary arteries, he knew almost immediately she would need open heart surgery.
“I didn’t expect to find that many severe blockages,” he says. “There were too many to fix with stents.”
Dr. Brar notes that many women brush off subtle warning signs of heart disease. “It could be shortness of breath, epigastric discomfort [indigestion] or feeling tired for no reason. If you’re feeling something isn’t right, pay attention to that,” he says.
Dr. Brar introduced Kathy to cardiothoracic surgeon George Christensen, DO, who explained to Kathy what he’d be doing. They developed an instant rapport. “He sat down and talked with me like you’d meet a friend.”
Six-Way Bypass Surgery
Kathy knew her father had died from a heart attack at age 66, but “as far as I knew, I was a healthy person. I danced for 25 years – ballet, tap, jazz and ‘Dancing with the Stars’ exercise tapes. During menopause, I developed high blood pressure, but it was fine with medicine. My cholesterol was a little high, but not enough to take medicine. Having heart disease never entered my mind.”
In under six hours, Dr. Christensen took veins and arteries from elsewhere in Kathy’s body to bypass blocked arteries and construct six new pathways to supply her heart muscle with blood and oxygen.
Kathy recovered well. She fondly remembers that Dr. Christensen “popped in at 2 a.m. the night of my surgery. He was there just checking in on me.”
During a recent checkup, Dr. Brar confirmed her heart function is normal. “She had an excellent heart surgeon and she was a healthy patient. That all helps in the recovery process. I think she’ll have an excellent long-term outcome.”
Change of Life
Grateful for her life-giving heart surgery, Kathy has made some changes. After she completed cardiac rehab with St. Elizabeth Healthcare, Kathy joined a local gym.
“I do the rowing machine, walk on a treadmill and do the elliptical at least three days a week and four if I can.”
She has reduced her cholesterol with medicine and eliminated “as much salt as possible. We are fat-free and have given up cheeses, mayonnaise and salad dressing.” She and her husband, Jim, have both lost about 25 pounds.
Dr. Brar applauds Kathy’s efforts. He says, “She is doing everything by the book. She’s never smoked and is living a healthy lifestyle.”
He encourages all women to follow Kathy’s lead: “Exercise three to five times a week, maintain a healthy body weight, know your cholesterol and blood pressure numbers. Don’t get so busy that you ignore or write off your symptoms.”
Kathy and Jim are mostly retired, enjoying time with family, including six grandchildren.
For the one-year anniversary of her surgery, Kathy threw a party at her house for friends and family.
She cherishes this new chapter of her life. “I feel totally blessed. When I woke up after surgery, I thought, ‘I’m alive. Thank you, God.’ And there they all were – my family. I’m grateful for the doctors and nurses who took care of me.”
Kathy concludes, “I feel great. To this day, it’s hard to believe I went through all of that a year ago. I’m certain if it hadn’t all happened when it did, I wouldn’t be here today.”
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