Thirty years ago, my parents placed my life in the hands of a heart surgeon for the fourth time. This stoic man had operated on my tiny heart from the time I was seven days old. He twice repaired a coarctation of aorta, once removed a subaortic membrane—and now it was time for the riskiest surgery yet. Although I looked fine, my aortic valve was a ticking time bomb inside my chest. After receiving second and third opinions, both of which were in agreement with the surgeon’s plan, I headed to the OR at three months shy of five years old to have my aortic valve replaced with a 19mm St. Jude mechanical valve.
After nearly 10 hours of surgery, I was brought into the ICU but quickly returned to the OR hours later due to excessive bleeding. I returned to my ICU room with an open chest to allow the swelling of my heart to decrease while the army of medication pumps provided support to my nearly five-year-old heart and body.
The situation was dire, and nothing made this more apparent than my surgeon, who, although kind and absolutely brilliant, had shown little emotion in the nearly five years of caring for me. He told my family with tears in his eyes that he had done all he could do, and it was time to pray. He stayed close by my bedside for the next 36 hours. My parents told me they’ll never forget seeing him swing the ICU doors open to the family area with the biggest grin on his face once I turned the corner. “Misty has decided it’s time for her to get better. Come see!”
Twenty-eight days later, I was discharged home and, much to my mother’s initial horror, was making mud pies in the backyard with a friend within the first 48 hours. After being too tired to play with much of anything while in the hospital, my mom threw an extra shirt on me and let me resume being a regular kid. The first few months were rough as I adjusted to the loud sound of my valve, often visiting the side of my parents’ bed to let them know I couldn’t sleep because “I’m tickin’.”
That tiny little valve is now 30 years old. I’m still tickin’ (figuratively and literally!) but the sound no longer keeps me up at night. Most of the time, unless it’s very quiet, I don’t even notice it but when I do, it’s a comforting reminder of second chances.
I’m very aware of just how fortunate I am to celebrate such an anniversary. This valve, and the skill and dedication of a wonderful surgeon and medical team, has allowed me to accomplish so much – playing clarinet in my high school marching band, studying abroad in Spain, completing nursing school, marrying the love of my life, working for and advocating with ACHA, and losing over 40 pounds the past two years just to name a few.
While we still have much to learn in the field of congenital heart disease, I am grateful for the pioneers who dared to dream. To try new surgical approaches. To find solutions to complex problems. Because of them, I and so many others can make memories, accomplish goals, celebrate anniversaries and be pioneers ourselves.
I’ll be celebrating my valve’s 30th birthday by eating cake and running 30 miles in the month of March for ACHA Your Way and my first official 5K later this year. Here’s to the next 30 years of clickin’, tickin’ and accomplishing great things together!
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