Being Home for the Holidays Has a Whole New Meaning
Kristen was settling in to feed her newborn baby on Christmas Eve as her three older children went to bed. It was the holiday evening she had envisioned – relaxed family time the day after coming home from the hospital following the birth of her daughter, Hattie. Suddenly, unbelievable pain shot through Kristen's left jaw. It moved in a web-like pattern into her cheek, the left side of her neck, her chest and her arm.
"Something was very, very wrong," she recalled. "It was so instantaneous."
Fearing that she might pass out, Kristen lay Hattie in her crib and crawled toward her husband, Steve, who was getting gifts out of a closet. He found his wife unconscious and dialed 911. Kristen wasn't breathing. Emergency workers resuscitated her multiple times as she went in and out of consciousness.
At the hospital, doctors determined that Kristen – then age 40 – had suffered a heart attack.
Following a catheterization procedure and days of testing, there were no clear answers for why the attack occurred. Kristen was determined to get home to her husband and their children, who at the time were ages 10, 7, 5 and 8 days. She was to wear a defibrillator-equipped vest that would administer a shock to the heart, if necessary. But before leaving the hospital, Kristen suffered a second, even worse, heart attack.
It felt like she was drowning as her chest filled with blood. Kristen had suffered a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, a tearing of the coronary artery. Doctors rushed her to surgery and performed a triple bypass. Kristen's heart was badly damaged. She came out of surgery on ECMO, the highest form of modern-day life support.
Over the next few weeks, Kristen survived on life support. Machines pumped blood through her heart and body. “It was 15 minutes from the initial attack to being in heart surgery,” Steve commented. “And they told me that if we hadn’t been upstairs in a heart transplant hospital, she wouldn’t have survived.”
Once Kristen was stable, a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, was surgically implanted to pump blood and give her the best chance of survival. Ultimately, she would need a heart transplant.
Undeterred, Kristen began rebuilding her health and fitness under the careful guidance of her care team. “There were times in cardiac rehab when I was just brought to tears because I couldn’t do something as simple as sitting down and standing up again,” Kristen said. That’s when she took up the mantra “Three breaths, then Go!” She learned to use this mantra to drive herself through the toughest parts of her therapy.
Over the next eight months, Kristen continued to do the work, redefining what it means to be well. With her LVAD, Kristen made it a point to “get back to normal,” by taking hikes with her family and driving her children to school each day. Then, one night in late 2016, the call came.
"Kristen, we have a heart for you," said the voice on the phone.
“It was bittersweet, beautiful and awful, all at the same time,” she said. Just months before, Kristen lost her mother from a heart attack. She was getting another chance at life, yet the heart donor’s family had lost a loved one, just like she had. “There are not enough words to describe what that phone call was like.”
Today, Kristen and her family are thriving. She has since regained her health and is very active in the community, encouraging everyone to be proactive with their heart health.
“Being a good steward of your heart is such an important thing,” Kristen says. “It’s something that I work at every single day, and I’m especially grateful for this heart.”
We're so grateful for your consideration to Open Your Heart this holiday season so more women like Kristen can be with their families.
LOCALLY SPONSORED BY