Keep on Fighting with Heart
I am a survivor of heart valve disease. I lived with mitral valve prolapse with severe regurgitation for 10 years before it was recommended that I have a valve repair. During those years of watching my condition, I gave myself a birthday present each year and scheduled follow-up appointments the month of my birthday, every August.
At a routine physical in 2001, my primary care physician detected a heart murmur. A specialist told me I had mitral valve prolapse. I was given the option of taking beta blockers that would “treat” the palpitations that I would occasionally feel but did not attribute to the newly diagnosed heart murmur. Uncomfortable with that type of generalized prescription, I sought a second opinion and became a patient of Dr. Robert Bonow of Northwestern Memorial Medical.
After several years of annual echocardiograms, stress tests and a watchful eye, in October 2009, I was diagnosed with a leaky mitral valve. In October 2012, I was advised that the results of that year’s echocardiogram indicated that my mitral valve regurgitation was becoming severe enough that I should consider surgery while I was a young and healthy 41-year-old. The irony of the situation is that externally I wasn’t feeling anything but what I had grown accustomed to -- the daily heart palpitations and fatigue that I attributed to the overall stresses of everyday life. However, internally, I began to exhibit signs on my echocardiogram that my left ventricle and atrium were becoming dilated as result of the heart working harder to pump the blood that was regurgitating backward. As a result of the blood pumping backward, it was not pumping efficiently throughout my body.
While I struggled with the concept of having surgery at such an early age, especially being in optimal health, I was advised that a repair to the valve is more advantageous than a replacement. The hardest pill to swallow was the fact that my disease would only get worse as time progressed. The heart would become weaker and both the ventricle and atrium would continue to enlarge; pressure in the lungs continue to increase; chordae (cord-like tendons that connect to the tricuspid valve and mitral valve) become weaker, possibly rupture and cause irreversible damage. I continuously struggled with the thought that while I maintained a healthy weight of 125 lbs, over all healthy diet, non-smoker, non-diabetic, perfect blood pressure, cholesterol within limits and moderate exercise, for me, a structural abnormality simply ruled this disease. https://supportnetwork.heart.org/blog-news/christine-rekash-wagner-my-journey-operation-backward-blood-part-1/
With all of this being said, my husband, Jim Wagner, and I met with my surgeon, Dr. Patrick McCarthy also of Northwestern. After many questions and answers, hesitations, fears of the unknown and all the “what if’s,” I scheduled the surgery for June 13, 2013. I chose to have the traditional open heart sternotomy incision even though I was an optimal candidate for the robotic minimally invasive procedure. I was not overly concerned about the cosmetic appearance of the scar post surgery as much as I wanted to minimize any risk during the operation. In my opinion, sometimes the old-fashioned ways are the best ways. Open heart surgery has become so advanced that I was comfortable with the traditional sternotomy being in the hands of world-renowned surgeons and cardiologists at Northwestern. On June 13, 2013, the mitral annuloplasty ring to repair the mitral valve as well as repairs to the chordae were completed. (Visit Heart.org for more information on treatment options for heart valves, http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/HeartValveProblemsandDisease/Understanding-Your-Heart-Valve-Treatment-Options_UCM_450784_Article.jsp#.WnkVgtipWtU)
Preparing for Operation Backward Blood
Backward Blood” was the moniker that I chose for my surgery. In preparation for Operation Backward Blood, I researched what I could to dispel my anxiety, uncertainty and fears of what I was about to encounter. Surprisingly, there was very little information available on how to prepare for open heart surgery. Looking back, I can truly say that the anxiety of the surgery was the most stressful part, and I would have been even more anxiety ridden had I not done my homework. With this in mind, I would like to share with you some tips and tricks for my preparation of Operation Backward Blood pre-op, post-op and recovery from a woman’s perspective.
If you are fortunate, as I was, to have some time to schedule the surgery, you should also be able to organize and delegate work assignments, household chores and shopping lists. While I do not recommend scheduling six months in advance as I did, because anxiety levels just intensify, I found that it was extremely helpful to make notes and deadlines for myself as the operation drew closer.
I also applied this tactic to my job. I took copious notes of where I left off regarding my workload. I found this extremely helpful when returning to work.
Additionally, I began to keep track of common items, as well as favorites, that I buy at the store so that my husband or caregivers would be able to streamline their trips. I even made meals ahead of time and froze them for when I would return home, with the intention to make cooking a little easier for my husband and caregivers. There’s nothing quite like homemade chicken soup to help you feel better instantly. I am fortunate that I have a close-knit family and had fresh homemade “meals on wheels” delivered by my parents and sisters.
Lastly, I scheduled a few days off prior to surgery to clean my house from top to bottom one last time, make a final trip to the grocery store, pay bills, organize my legal documents needed for the hospital, prepare for my recovery, pack for the hospital and enjoy time with my family and friends. (https://supportnetwork.heart.org/blog-news/christine-rekash-wagner-my-journey-operation-backward-blood-part-2/)
My recovery from open heart surgery was not an easy road by any means. I encountered many frustrations with my slow progress and struggles with multiple road blocks. During this four-month recovery period, I also had to have three cardioversions, 13 weeks of cardiac rehabilitation, as well as a cardiac catheter ablation to eradicate a tripping circuit that was causing me to have continuous atrial flutter and fibrillation. My heart rate would elevate as high as 185 beats per minute at rest accompanied by lightheadedness, low blood pressure and fatigue. As a result, this caused great anxiety, concern and worry counterproductive to recovering from heart surgery. I often thought to myself, will this ever end? My family and friends’ love, dedication, compassion and support on all levels were the cornerstone for a positive and successful recovery. Everyone was unique and different in their own way re: the support that they demonstrated to me during this time. Words cannot express enough how much my family and friends motivated me to "keep on fighting with heart" through all the negativity that lasted at least a year and half. Whether they were near or far, I could not have pulled through it all without them. https://supportnetwork.heart.org/blog-news/christine-rekash-wagner-my-journey-operation-backward-blood-part-3
In June 2017, I celebrated my four-year anniversary of surgery. I also began kickboxing after getting a cardiac release from Dr. Bonow, who was excited for me to get back into a fitness regime. I knew from previous experience with the martial arts that this sport would be good for me to “get back in the ring and take another swing.” At my gym, I was given the fighting name “Queen of Hearts” as I have made it my mission to “kick out heart disease one beat at a time.” As a Heart Valve Ambassador and Go Red for Women Ambassador, I hope to be an inspiration to others, especially women. Heart disease affects one third of us, and it certainly does not discriminate. When followed carefully by expert medical staff, with treatment timed right, women with heart valve disease can lead normal, active lives. They can maintain vigorous lifestyles and not be destined to a life of difficulties.
While Operation Backward Blood has been elevated to “Mission Accomplished” status, one more mission remains. There is still plenty of fight left in me, and it is my personal mission to keep paying it forward to those enduring similar heart journeys who may not have the support and encouragement of others that have blessed me. Through the hard work, dedication and amazing advances of the American Heart Association,my personal mission of supporting others has begun. And by sharing my story here on the AHA Support Network of setbacks and struggles of mind and body to the success of spirit through encourgagment and motivation to keep on fighting and keep on "kicking" out your heart disease one beat at time, my murmering heart, has become the Queen of Hearts!