The warning sign: shortness of breath. The two block walk to work, a routine part of Barbara Etheridge’s day, was ever so gradually wearing her out.
“Of course the symptoms gave me a clue I’d better have it checked,” said Barbara, a 66-year-old from Moyock, NC. Her physician scheduled tests revealing a not uncommon problem of aging: a mitral valve defect prevented her heart from pumping efficiently. Surgery was in her future.
The mitral valve is the gatekeeper for the heart. As blood makes its journey through the body, it flows through the lungs and picks up a fresh supply of oxygen. The mitral valve opens, allowing the oxygen-rich blood into the heart, and then closes, sealing the chamber. The heart contracts and pushes blood out on a fresh circuit through the body. Then the mitral valve reopens and the process repeats.
Barbara’s problem was that her "cutoff valve" had an imperfect seal. Called “regurgitation,” some blood was leaking back into the lungs. This forced her heart to pump more blood with each contraction in order to push the same amount of blood forward. The heart can compensate for this overload for months or years, but eventually begins to fail. Patients show symptoms of shortness of breath or tiredness.
“Fortunately it wasn’t so bad I needed surgery right away,” said Barbara. Her doctor monitored her condition while she did what she could to stay fit. She walked regularly with neighbors and she became an avid devotee of Curves, the low impact exercise facility.
Over time she could feel her malfunctioning valve taking a gradual toll. “I decided to go ahead with the surgery while I still felt healthy. What if I had another life-threatening disease pop up?” she wondered. “That would make the surgery even worse.”
Her doctor referred her to cardiovascular surgeon Jeffrey Rich, M.D.
“He came very highly recommended and had a good bedside manner,” Barbara said. “I came to my appointment with a list of questions – that’s the type of person I am – and he was very thorough answering them.” During her evaluation Dr. Rich asked Barbara where she wanted to go for surgery.
“I had no hesitation - the Heart Hospital at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital
. It was the only place I would want to be. It made sense because they are specialists, and the nurses are very well trained for that specific thing,” she said.
Barbara was in the operating room in early September and sailed through the procedure. “The nurses said that my muscles being strong from exercise made surgery go easy.”
One of the unexpected bright spots in her recovery was Barbara’s chance to get to know her caregivers. She refers to them as “her little angels.”
“The staff was 100 percent over the top with courtesy and concern,” she said. “As busy as they were, they took time to talk to me about other things than surgery. The very first person I met in registration – Sandy – was such a sweet lady. After surgery she came up and checked on me. When people treat you that way, it gives you a good feeling the minute you walk in the door.”
Prior to surgery, Barbara had been to Sentara for a few tests and her experiences then were equally reassuring. “One time my girl friend and I were in the wrong place, and this person walked us all the way to the office we were looking for. That makes you feel special.”
Today Barbara is immersed in her cardiac rehab program, looking to regain her stamina. “It feels good to get back to exercising. I used to walk two miles a day. Sometimes we would do four. I look forward to getting back to that.” Not satisfied with three days of scheduled rehab each week, Barbara impresses her husband Donald by augmenting it with sessions on her treadmill and walks with friends.
Right now Barbara Etheridge is happy to say she can catch her breath once again, which lets her go at life the way she likes: with a bounce in her step, a smile in her voice and determination.