Debra North: My third heart valve replacement takes an emotional toll
I knew recovery from heart valve surgery would not be easy. I had undergone a repair in 2006, followed by a heart valve replacement in 2016. When that valve unexpectedly failed, requiring a second replacement after 17 months, I found myself also grappling with a heavy emotional toll. I felt despondent, but also angry that I had to go through this again so soon.
But I was not alone, as many as five million Americans are diagnosed with heart valve disease (HVD), a condition in which one or more of the heart valves have been damaged, disrupting blood flow by not opening or closing properly. HVD becomes more common with age, with 1 in 8 people older than 75 years old estimated to have moderate to severe heart valve disease, but people with congenital heart defects (CHD) or those who have experienced a heart attack, rheumatic fever, hypercholesterolemia and poor lining of the heart walls or valves have an increased risk.
I live in Huntington Beach, California, and have dealt with heart issues since birth, when I survived a heart attack and stroke and was diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse with regurgitation. Growing up, I was told I’d eventually need a repair or replacement of the heart valve in the future, but not until I was in my 60s.
At 30, however, I learned the constant fatigue I was experiencing was a symptom of heart valve disease, as a result of a congenital defect, and underwent surgery to repair the valve.
After I had my valve repaired, I became more vigilant about my health and a stronger advocate for myself, something that helped me recognize that something was wrong with my heart valve a decade later. This time I underwent a heart valve replacement, but began to have complications after only six months, requiring a second replacement in November 2017.
A few weeks after I returned home, I was so sad all the time and struggling to stay motivated. I had irrational fears, such as having to have surgery again.
I sought therapy to help process my feelings, and my doctor prescribed a mild antidepressant to help get my brain chemicals back in order. Both helped me rediscover my joy and purpose in life, and made me want to fight to get back my life. I also underwent cardiac rehab. The rehab program enabled me to regain my strength and stamina slowly, but also provided an important support system. It was nice to hear other people’s stories and to understand that I wasn’t alone.
The second heart valve transplant also left me with difficulty remembering some things as well as with aphasia, a condition that left me unable to find the right words at times. I underwent therapy to help my brain rebuild connections but continue to experience symptoms when I am tired.
I had to learn how to avoid putting unneeded pressure on myself. Recognizing I get tired more easily, I am careful to get plenty of rest, maintain a healthy diet and exercise regimen.
I returned to teaching in August 2018 and am careful not to wear myself out, a message I pass on to my high school students. It’s been an uphill climb for me to find balance and not stress too much. I emphasize to my students that their health has to come first.
Now 44, I volunteer to raise awareness and share resources for patients and families through the Support Network as an HVD ambassador. My story illustrates the importance of recognizing symptoms and maintaining close communication with your doctor.
I keep a journal to track my diet and health so that I can recognize any changes. When I noticed I was quickly gaining weight, I talked to my doctor about possible heart failure risks as unexpected weight gain can be a warning sign of heart failure. Staying in touch with your cardiologist and advocating for yourself is really important. This is my body, so I make sure I communicate with my doctor if something doesn’t feel right.