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Grateful for Support and Care While Living Abroad

Thursday, November 02, 2023

By Nicola Burrows

I am so thankful that I had parents who advocated for me from the first hour. They made sure I went to every follow-up appointment, took my antibiotics one hour before dental care, ate well, exercised, etc. And once I became an adult, it was my turn to either continue taking care of myself or not. I chose to do the former.

After graduating high school, I moved to Germany for a year before starting college. Not even two months after living there, I experienced something that to this day, we still do not know what it was (either a blood clot that miraculously dissolved, a reaction to a medicine I had taken a few months earlier, or just one of those medical mysteries… either way, it was scary!). Thankfully, the insurance I had while living there gave me the access I needed to get the right medical attention.

When I moved back to the States, I graduated from a pediatric cardiologist to adult care—specifically to a cardiologist for adults with congenital heart disease. It has been an honest and wonderful nearly 20-year relationship with my doctor. When I had the opportunity to move to Costa Rica in 2008 as a 23-year-old, I consulted my cardiologist, who said: “Go for it! Just come back at least every two years for your checkup.”

I had no idea that I would end up living there and marrying a local. I believe I had one checkup since my visit with her in 2008 and then when I started dating my husband in 2011, I began experiencing palpitations. I found a cardiologist in Costa Rica (there are no specialists for adult congenital heart disease in the country) who was recommended, and I thought (perhaps I was in a bit of denial) he would help me. He gave me a treatment, but it did not work.

Just about a year after we got married, I finally decided to see my CHD specialist in Texas and her first words to me were, after coming in and straight out asking if we wanted children, “you need surgery.”

The time had come.

So, we made plans for me to get my pulmonary valve inserted on June 6, 2014. We went back to Costa Rica, made plans, lost sleep (I really did not realize how physically bad off I was until I had the surgery… just walking several meters drained me, and I was only 29 and physically active with a healthy weight), and anxiously waited for June to come around.

I also used ACHA’s Heart to Heart Peer Mentor program (using magicJack to make our international calls!) which was a HUGE support for me and my husband. I was connected with a wonderful woman who shared her journey with me and eased my fears about surgery and recovery! Her humor helped ease the unknown for me and her phone calls were very reassuring on what I was about to go through. I am so thankful that technology allowed me to have this resource at my fingertips (literally) and I made sure my peer mentor was one of the first phone calls my husband made when I was out of surgery. I am also thrilled to share that I became a peer mentor myself this past June!

My stay in the hospital was very short considering the extent of the surgery, and having a great team of surgeons and doctors along with my immediate family really helped me stay positive throughout the whole experience. I immediately noticed the difference in how I felt after the surgery! It was amazing and life-changing. Recovery went smoothly and six months later I was pregnant with our first child. But catching this at the right moment was all due to the way my parents handled my care growing up and instilled in me that “absolute must” of continuing check-ups, abiding by doctor’s orders, and taking care of myself.

Thanks to an awesome international health insurance that I have had during my nearly 16 years here in Costa Rica, I was able to visit my CHD cardiologist every 18 months or so in the U.S. to keep up with my checkups. Now that my family and I have made plans to move to the U.S., I will continue to see my CHD cardiologist and continue to get the care I need when it comes time for more procedures. I am thankful that my two children were born with no heart issues, but I make sure they are getting the health care and follow-ups that they need for their general well-being. We are not guaranteed each day, no matter our health status, and I never take anything for granted.


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The opinions expressed by ACHA bloggers and those providing comments on the ACHA Blog are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Adult Congenital Heart Association or any employee thereof. ACHA is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the ACHA bloggers.

The contents of this blog are presented for informational purposes only, and should not be substituted for professional advice. Always consult your physicians with your questions and concerns.

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