Mar 28

A Story Of Setbacks. And A Strong Comeback.

Christine Rekash thought she was prepared for open-heart surgery to repair a failing mitral valve, but several complications following her procedure made her realize that she had to take one step at a time.  She now works to raise awareness about heart health and offer support to other patients facing heart disease.276cf882fecc386a122971099247cb31-huge-fo

Rekash first learned she had a congenital heart condition in 2000, when her doctor detected a heart murmur during a routine physical. Then 29, the paralegal from suburban Chicago followed up with a cardiologist who suggested medication. Uncomfortable with the plan, Rekash sought a second opinion and found a specialist who recommended close
monitoring of the murmur instead.
Rekash underwent uneventful testing for nine years until she was diagnosed in 2009 with a leaky mitral valve, a condition that can put added stress on the heart. By late 2012, the conditioned had worsened, causing her heart to become enlarged as it worked harder to move blood between its chambers. Rekash’s doctor recommended open-heart surgery to repair the valve before things became worse.
It was startling for Rekash, who hadn’t even noticed that she was already having symptoms. She had become accustomed to bouts of daily palpitations and feeling more tired, but attributed it to working in a stressful job and getting older.
“I’d wake up feeling like I really needed a cup of coffee to get going,” she said. “It seemed like I could never catch up.”
Rekash’s e621f9164279371c7c05fb7835b2bbd4-huge-icsurgery took place in June 2013, choosing a Summer date so she could rebuild her strength by walking her chocolate lab, Elle, outside, rather than facing Winter’s frigid Chicago temperatures.
Recovery proved difficult, and included several complications. Fluid collected around her heart, causing it to work harder. And Rekash’s heart kept racing, even if she was sitting still. After three cardioversion treatments, she underwent a cardiac ablation procedure and began treatment for atrial fibrillation until her heart resumed a normal rhythm. 

“It just seemed like one thing after the next,” she said. “You think you’re going to get this surgery and then you’ll be fine, but there were just so many things to deal with.”
It took almost a year for things to improve, and Rekash committed herself to reconditioning her heart. After getting clearance from her cardiologist, she joined a local gym offering high-intensity kickboxing classes, building on martial arts experience she’d gained during high school and college.
“It was harder than I expected, but I knew it would be my ticket to get back into a healthy program,” she said. 
She started slow, making modifications where needed. Today, she takes three or four classes each week, and is known as the “Queen of Hearts,” inspiring fellow gym members.
“I never imagined I’d be an inspiration to others, but people would hear my story and tell me they were inspired to get back into shape or lose weight,” she said. “That really helped me keep a positive outlook.”

Now 44, Rekash volunteers for the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women initiative and offers support to other heart patients 
through AHA’s Support Network.
Recalling her own anxieties as she awaited surgery and grappled with an uneven recovery, “I felt so afraid and alone because I couldn’t find anyone my age,” Rekash said. “The medical professionals tell you what they will do medically, but it’s the survivors that can help you understand what it will be like to recover.”
  • purple heart
    purple heart,
    Thank you for sharing your story! It has helped me today get motivated . I am waiting to have an echo done to check my mitral valve in June.
  • mmcdowell
    Thank you for sharing. My mom had her tricuspid valve replaced and her mitral valve repaired on February 23, 2016. She won't get up out of the bed and she won't put on any real clothes. She was preparing us for her not to make it out of surgery but now that she has made it, she is not motivated to do anything. She thinks I am fussing at her when I tell her to get up and move around but I'm just trying to motivate her. Do you have any suggestions for me to encourage her?
  • Kathy1948
    For 15 years the doctors had told me I had mitral valve prolapse with regurgitation. Throughout those years, every 6 months I would have an echocardiogram. Finally, my cardiologist told me it was time to perform more tests to be sure I was ready as a candidate for mitral valve repair. My catherizations were clear, so there were no blockages. The repair was performed on 10/27/15. As in Rekash's story I only felt a little tired, but had no swelling or other problems. So I walked into the hospital feeling alright. Luckily the doctor was able to do the repair and didn't need a replacement valve. When I had my doctor's appoint 3 weeks later, I still wasn't feeling great, but all the tests showed I was healing fine. I asked about cardiac rehab and he agreed and prescribed rehab. That was probably the best thing I could have done and I recommend it for anyone who has had a cardiac event...and of course, if your doctor approves. When I went for my orientation and had to park in a ramp and walk into the building. I was not enjoying the walk...thinking maybe I was making a mistake. However, after 36 visits and wonderful nurses monitoring my progress, I am happy to say that I have graduated from rehab and I feel great. The nurses in rehab really pump you up and make you feel like you have really made progress. I have now returned to my gym and attempting to replicate the things I did in rehab. The cardiac surgeon told me I have 20 more years since he fixed my "broken" heart....I am now 67 and looking forward to him keeping his word.
  • nathpt
    I am alive today, due to the NIH and American Heart Association research on cardiovascular disease. I have a mechanical aortic valve, due to a streptococcus infection (endocarditis), with the research I am able to live with a mechanical aortic valve. Thank you AHA and NIH for your research and support.
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