Jessica Withers - The Emotional Impact of Mitral Valve Stenosis, Part 2
At the age of 45, Jessica Withers was surprised to discover she had mitral stenosis. Valvuloplasty opened up the valve and her life has not been the same since. She works at Cornell University Library and spends most of her free time writing and enjoying being alive.
Tina Schuur and I share another experience -- we were both told that we had a “Third World disease.” The cardiologists were intending to convey that our condition is uncommon now in developed countries due to the wide availability of antibiotics for conditions like strep throat that can lead to valve damage if left untreated. This may be why our primary care physicians missed it, but the phrase brought back traumatic memories from our childhoods.
I grew up in a working-class family that sometimes did not have health insurance. Even when we did, finances might not have allowed for doctor appointments. With four children, my parents had to choose whether to take time off from work to take one of us to the doctor or to work full shifts so they could pay bills and buy groceries. Mitral valve stenosis develops after untreated strep throat or rheumatic fever, and I had strep throat repeatedly as a child. Strep wasn’t traumatic for me; it is the memories of financial insecurity that are my trauma. When the cardiologist came to my ICU bed and compared my condition to that of someone in an undeveloped country I suddenly felt like that “poor kid” again.
Tina’s family had insurance, but her father worked long hours and her mother did not always get her the medical care she needed. Tina can pinpoint the incident that led to her mitral stenosis; she was about seven years old and her throat hurt so much that she asked if she was going to die, only to have her mother laugh at her. When she heard the phrase “Third World disease,” Tina felt like an inconvenience again.
Our traumas are different, and we can vividly recall them. We carry those wounds with us and hearing this phrase was like ripping off the scabs. However, the cardiologists were not looking at me as “the poor kid” and they weren’t thinking that Tina was an inconvenience. They wanted to help us heal and help us understand why we suffered for so long.
Mitral stenosis isn’t the only disease that can take a long time to diagnose, and when you finally do receive a diagnosis, your emotional wounds may surface. That is normal. Don’t stuff your emotions deep inside. Instead, try to work through them with a trusted friend or counselor or here on the American Heart Association’s Support Network.
If you are struggling with ill health, keep advocating for yourself. Be assertive with your doctor when something doesn’t feel right or if your symptoms aren’t going away. Be confident in your knowledge of your body and your history. Access to medical care is not a given, and there are many reasons that a person may not have received an expected treatment. If that is true for you, let your primary care physician know when you go over medical history. And keep pushing! The correct diagnosis will change your life.