This week’s Story With Heart is a guest post written by McKenzie, a cardiology student who is drawing on her own experience as a heart patient as she works towards her goal of becoming a cardiologist.
In an instant our lives can change, and depending on our perspective, and if we allow ourselves to learn and grow from it, the event that was the action of change can be one of the best things to happen.
On December 7, 2014, my life changed forever, and I was devastated—I had been diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, an autoimmune disease. But little did I know that a few weeks later I would barely be hanging onto that life by a thread. On December 19th, I began having severe back pain, and since I had just been diagnosed with a disease known for joint pain, I pushed through the pain, managing it as best as I could. (I was not about to ruin my favorite holiday.) The pain continued, and as I lied in bed on December 21st, I was overcome by the feeling that I was not going to wake up in the morning. I thought I was going to die, and for some reason I believed there was a slight chance it could be my heart. But how could it possibly be my heart? I was only twenty years old. I had been an athlete my whole life; I was a college athlete. I ate healthy, never smoked, and never drank. I did everything right. I cried myself to sleep that night, but when I awoke in the morning, I could not feel my right arm. I pushed the idea that it could be a heart related problem to the back of my mind and mentioned to my parents the numbness in my arm. They knew that I needed to be seen by my rheumatologist immediately—something was wrong, and it was not as simple as joint pain anymore.
After several blood tests and imaging, I was admitted into the hospital to receive high dose IV prednisone and pain management. Around 9 pm I was taken for a MRI to determine if I had brain damage caused by Lupus. I arrived back to my hospital room at about 10 pm and said goodnight to my family as they headed home for the night—that was the last thing I remembered for several hours.
At about 2 am on December 23, 2014, I was rushed into the cath lab for emergency heart surgery. The on-call doctor had just noticed that I was having a massive heart attack. My heart was occluded in two spots in the left anterior descending coronary artery; there was a 100% blockage in one area and a 90% blockage in the other. But my heart attack was not like a normal heart attack. It was not caused by any of the typical risk factors. My doctors believe that Lupus, and a secondary disease to Lupus, called cryoglobulinemic vasculitis, caused my heart attack. The substance blocking my heart was something none of the doctors on my case had ever seen before—it was white and frothy, “like a latte,” they said. Each time my heart would beat, more of this unknown substance would form; no matter how much of it the cardiologist would pull out of my heart during the procedure, more would continue to develop. This meant that despite his efforts, he was not able to remove the blockage, which meant the heart attack continued. (My doctors believe I had been having a heart attack for four days.) I was put on an intra-aorta balloon pump to keep me alive just long enough to survive the one-hour flight down to Salt Lake City, Utah—if there was any chance of saving my life, they needed to transport me to the University of Utah hospital for a potential heart transplant.
The last thing I remembered was going to bed, and my heart was normal like most twenty-year-old’s, but when I woke up I was in a different room, in a different state, it was daylight, and I was surrounded by several nurses and doctors as they prepared to take me to the operating room. When they got me to the OR I became even more unstable than I already was, so the surgeon decided to do a catheterization instead of open heart. The surgeon spoke with my family afterwards and said that he cried during the procedure because at one point I was “barely even hanging onto life by a thread.”
I spent about a month in the hospital after my heart attack, and it was the hardest month of my life. I fought for life every second I was there. I almost bled to death. I had sepsis. The balloon pump stopped working. I had blood clots. My heart would not stop racing. My legs went numb. My blood pressure kept tanking. I had chemo treatments. I had plasmapheresis. My liver started failing. My kidneys started failing. I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease of the liver and another rare autoimmune disease. Every time I blinked, there was more bad news and I was certain that I was never going to have a life outside of the hospital walls ever again. I thought I would be tethered to an IV pole for the rest of my life and forced to give up many dreams I had.
I was finally sent home, but only to be chained to a couch. I could not do anything for myself—I needed my mom to do almost everything for me, which was difficult for me to get used to as an independent type of person. I quickly grew tired of TV and books and drawing. My mind was used to being stimulated at school, but I was not allowed to attend university because of my heart, so I turned to the internet. And thus began my great obsession with the human heart and all things cardiology.
I initially looked up things about the heart that were related to my case, to educate myself for future appointments, but I quickly became intrigued. Before I knew it, I was deep into medical journals, reading about trans-aortic valve replacement versus surgical valve replacement, learning about the electrical conduction system of the heart, being amazed by the absolute beauty of the heart. I thought back to when I was in the hospital and how engaged I was every time my cardiologist talked to me about my case; when he would talk to me specifically he would teach me about it because he knew I loved science and learning. I recalled a conversation I had with my cardiologist—he had asked me what I was going to school for. I told him I was not sure and that I might want to be a chemist. He smiled, told me no, looked at his students standing behind him, and then looked back at me. I am pretty sure he knew before I knew—I want to be a cardiologist.
I could envision it—me wearing a white coat with my name embroidered on it, a stethoscope hanging around my neck, sitting by the bedside of a patient after they received their new heart. I was no longer devastated by the events that had occurred. I was filled with purpose and passion and drive again. I knew what I wanted, what I was going to do with my life—I want to be a cardiologist. Because I understand the patient’s pain. Because I understand the patient’s fear. Because I understand the patient’s grief. Because I understand the patient’s anger. All of the suffering will be worth it. I may have several years until I become a cardiologist, but I am so thankful for my heart attack and that this is where it has led me.
McKenzie is a premed student at Montana State University, and is currently working towards becoming a heart failure/heart transplant cardiologist. She’s passionate about sharing her story and advocating for chronic illness, heart disease, and blood donation. If you’d like to continue following McKenzie’s journey, you can visit her blogs The Chronic Med and Ceaseless Joy here. And if you’re interested in supporting blood donation, visit one of McKenzie’s favorite organizations, United Blood Services here.
[content_block id=1340 title=yes title_tag=h3]