Stories from the Heart

Surprising Stories of Hope and Recovery

margaret-hubbardMargaret’s Story

Who Says You Can’t Have

Successful Heart Surgery at 89?

Margaret Hubbard has always had heart issues. Born in 1927, she was known as a “blue baby,” or a baby with a blue complexion caused by congenital defects of the heart, or in Margaret’s case, having a heart valve that didn’t fully close, and thus caused poor blood circulation between Margaret’s heart and body. The more active she was, the worse her condition got, limiting the chance of a normal childhood.

In 1946 when Margaret was 19, a cardiologist from Birmingham, Alabama contacted her local doctor in Talladega. He offered a solution – an open heart surgery to fix the valve in her heart. The cardiologist, a member of the then newly opened Cardiovascular Associates, had experience with a new procedure and thought it would be a great option for Margaret. She didn’t hesitate when saying yes.

“I couldn’t say no. I had to try something. At that time, they thought I might live to be 30, but even then I wouldn’t be able to do anything but sit, so I was willing to try anything. I had the surgery, and here I am. I’ve been a patient at Cardiovascular Associates ever since.”

Thanks to her lifesaving surgery, Margaret has been able to live a normal life for the past 70 years. Recently though, beginning in November 2016, Margaret noticed she was starting to have some trouble.

“My feet and legs started to swell, and I started to get less active. I couldn’t walk without help, and family was having to carry me everywhere. When I went to see my cardiologist, they told me that I wasn’t getting enough oxygen. I didn’t think much of it until they told me I had to have heart surgery.”

Margaret’s aortic valve was narrowing, restricting blood flow to her heart and reducing her body’s supply of oxygenated blood. Due to Margaret’s age and past history, her doctors suggested that she receive a transcatheter aortic valve replacement, or TAVR. This minimally invasive procedure places a fully collapsible replacement valve into the existing valve site through a catheter, taking over the job of regulating blood flow.

Margaret was referred to Dr. Stephen Bakir, interventional cardiologist, and Dr. Russell Ronson, cardiothoracic surgeon, of Brookwood Baptist Medical Center’s newly opened Structural Heart and Valve Center. There, she underwent tests to make sure that her heart was strong enough for the TAVR procedure.

“I told them I was too old!” said Margaret, “I’m 89 – I couldn’t have heart surgery. But Dr. Bakir assured me that they could do it, so I said ‘Here I am, do what you can.’”

Dr. Ronson performed Margaret’s procedure alongside Dr. Bakir – the team approach allowed for additional expertise due to the complex nature of Margaret’s case. “When you have someone like Mrs. Hubbard who is higher risk and has a history of heart issues, a procedure like TAVR can be life-saving,” said Dr. Ronson. “We can replace the aortic valve without opening the chest, which means less stress on the patient and a shorter recovery time. We can now repair hearts that used to be unrepairable, and we can give people back their lives.”

Margaret is recovering well from her procedure and is happy to be back to her old life. She is 90 years old and still living alone and taking care of herself.

“My family doctor told me that if I hadn’t had this procedure, I probably wouldn’t be alive right now. Instead, I’m back to doing what I love – cutting my grass, tending my garden and doing things that need to be done around my house. And I get to keep my promise to see my grandson get married next year, and that’s the most important thing.”

megan-transplant1Megan’s Story

A Heart Transplant Patient Beats

Cancer, Too

At just 18 years old, Megan Gagliardi was told that she might die from a rare genetic heart condition.

The news came as a surprise since she hadn’t had heart issues prior to the diagnosis. But Megan says she felt she was in good hands once she was put under the care of Salpy Pamboukian, MD, Jose Tallaj, MD, and James Kirklin, MD, at UAB Medicine’s Heart and Vascular Clinic.

“I was 18 years old, and getting that kind of news was a big shock. I wasn’t really sure what to think,” Megan says. “That day when I was at the hospital, they told me I would eventually need a heart transplant or I wouldn’t make it. Again, to get that news at 18, that’s just something that throws you into shock, and you worry. But I knew being at UAB Medicine, I would have great doctors to take care of me.”

Now, thanks in part to UAB Medicine’s Comprehensive Transplant Institute (CTI), she is celebrating her recent engagement and an important six-year anniversary.

But there were other shocks ahead for the young woman. After overcoming the battle for a new heart, Megan received another setback when she was diagnosed with lymphoma.

Ten months after receiving her heart transplant, Megan began experiencing swollen lymph nodes, sluggishness, and fever. After seeing her doctors at UAB Medicine, she was diagnosed with diffuse large B Cell lymphoma, a type of cancer that begins in the white blood cells present in the body’s immune system. Because her anti-rejection medications were lowering her immune system’s ability to fight disease, she was more at risk to develop this cancer. Megan was placed under the care of the UAB Medicine Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Amitkumar Mehta, MD, who decided to start her on chemotherapy immediately.

“They could tell from my scans that the cancer was in my neck and chest, and it was spreading,” she says.

Megan underwent six rounds of chemotherapy starting in January 2013. She says the side effects of chemotherapy were hard at such a young age.

“I went through what every cancer patient experiences: loss of hair, a puffy face from heavy steroids, and no energy. I received shots every few weeks to increase my white blood cell count, and those shots gave me bone pain. It was challenging,” Megan says. “But I had my faith and trust in my doctors, which helped get me through it.”

Just two months after diagnosis, Megan received great news.

“I finally hit remission around May 2013. My family and I were shocked and elated,” she says. “We are so thankful for the care we received at UAB Medicine. Now I see my future as truly exciting!”

It’s now been six years since her heart transplant, and Megan says she celebrates that anniversary every year. Soon, she’ll be celebrating a different kind of anniversary; Megan got engaged in September 2017. She says it was her care at UAB Medicine that is giving her this chance at a brighter future, and she couldn’t be more grateful.

“I would say to my doctors and nurses that cared for me, thank you for all that you do,” Megan says. “I’m so thankful for the love you give and show your patients. You are the reason I’m here today. Thanks to UAB Medicine’s Comprehensive Transplant Institute, I can really say that my future is exciting.”

beaux_waites-sdm_7629Beaux’s Story

Full of Joy

Energetic and full of joy with a million-dollar smile is the best way to describe five-year-old Beaux Waites. Beaux is also a fighter, having been diagnosed with Down syndrome and  a heart condition called atrioventricular (AV) canal defect.

At  four months old, Beaux had open heart surgery after spending more than a month at Children’s of Alabama for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). His parents, Lauren and Shellie, made the decision for him to have the surgery. “Thank goodness we did, because when they opened him up, his heart was enlarged and nearly filled his entire chest cavity,” Lauren says. “He could have easily gone into heart failure at any second.”

Most people with Down syndrome who have  AV canal defect have only one hole in the heart that can cause problems with the valves that regulate blood flow. Beaux had four holes—three of which were corrected by Children’s doctors.

“After his surgery, I walked into his room,” Lauren says. “There were so many machines with tubes running to and from our baby and people coming and going from the room. All without skipping a beat. The staff at Children’s was like a well-oiled machine. It was amazing!”

Beaux  celebrated his five-year heart surgery anniversary in November 2017. He will eventually  have another surgery to close the remaining hole in his heart. Since birth, Beaux has had seven surgeries for various health issues, including sleep apnea, which was remedied with a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy. Before the surgery, Beaux woke up 29 times a night. “The doctors and nurses at Children’s are good about explaining things on a mom and dad level.  They work closely with you and want to hear what you have to say. It is truly a team effort,” Lauren says.

Beaux has a special bond with his 10-year-old brother, Matthew, and likes to play t-ball at the park. Like most boys his age, Beaux loves anything with wheels. On a recent visit to Children’s, he even found the Red Wagon that is dedicated to him and rode around in it. He also enjoys books and has a fascination with Shrek and Elmo.

Attending school has been a good experience for him. “His teachers and the students are all very supportive of him,” Lauren says. “He even has a peer moderator who has become one of his best friends.”

Beaux doesn’t seem to meet a stranger either. “When he is out in public, he thinks he is the mayor of everything! He walks around and meets people everywhere he goes,” Lauren says. “From the very beginning, he was our new normal…the missing piece to the rest of our lives.”

kristina2Kristina’s Story

A Different Kind of Heart Attack

Kristina Bradley is a cardiac nurse at Grandview Medical Center. On the night of Oct. 4, 2016, she woke up with all the normal heart attack symptoms—chest pain, nausea, vomiting. In spite of being a cardiac nurse, it was surprisingly easy to go into denial. “I kept thinking, ‘I’m only 38.’ But something kept telling me I had to go to the hospital.”

All the tests looked okay except her EKG, and cardiologist Dr. Juan Bernal knew something else was going on and decided to do a cardiac catheterization to double check. It turned out Kristina had a dissection in one of her arteries. Instead of being clogged, which is more common in heart attacks, the artery had started to tear apart. This is very rare and very serious. Dr. Bernal put three stents in. But 30 minutes later Kristina was having crushing chest pain again. The left main artery had dissected, and she was sent for emergency bypass surgery. Dr. John Casterline, a cardiothoracic surgeon, did four bypasses.

That night, Dr. Bernal diagnosed Kristina with SCAD—Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection. Most people have never heard of it, and it’s referred to as the “young, healthy person’s disease,” because it seems to come out of nowhere. It mainly affects females under the age of 55 with no risk factors—they work out, eat healthy, etc. It hit Kristina by surprise. That still small voice that said, “Get to the hospital,” was what saved her life.

She was in the ICU for 24 days and had to relearn to walk and do basic things. Lying in bed for that long, muscles lose function. During recovery it seemed everything that could go wrong did when it came to her body rejecting treatment. “Looking back at everything that happened,” Kristina says, “I know I really shouldn’t be here. I didn’t know I was allergic to a common blood thinner used in surgery, but I was. My whole body started shutting down. I had flash pulmonary edema. They had to re-intubate me. I was on dialysis around the clock.

“But God can work miracles, and it was amazing. The nephrologist said I was going to go home on dialysis, and I said, ‘No I’m not. That’s not how I came in, that’s not how I’m going home.”  Within three days, everything turned around. “It’s amazing how much you don’t know that you can endure, and then you do, and you come out so much stronger.”

Kristina recently joined a Mayo Clinic SCAD research trial to test for genetic risk factors contributing to the disease. “Clearly, I was really lucky that Dr. Bernal was familiar with the disease. It saved my life.”

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