It’s Heart Month and SingularCity member Cheryl Gelling is alive today thanks to the good work done by the American Heart Association.
February is Heart Month — a month of love — not just romantic love but of learning to listen and love your own heart. It’s an opportunity to become inspired through stories of those who have been touched by the good work of the American Heart Association. These stories of personal struggle and triumph carry with them a myriad of lessons — and a reason for hope.
My life is such a story. I was born with a heart defect known as a bi-cuspid aortic valve. Thanks to the American Heart Association, I am able to write this story today.
My relationship with the AHA began in 1963 when I was eight years old. The small town elementary school I attended held health clinics for its students and we lined up in the gymnasium to take our turn for a routine exam and to receive a measles vaccination. When the doctor placed his stethoscope over my heart, my life changed forever. He listened to a child’s heartbeat, paused, and listened again. I got my vaccination anda note for my mother to take me in for a cardiac assessment.
What the doctor heard that day was a heart murmur. At our first appointment, the cardiologist recommended diagnostic tests, an EKG and blood tests. He explained that the prognosis was unclear; however, it was clear that I had heart disease and would need to be monitored. Thus began a lifetime of uncertainty about my heart health.
Mom was a divorcée raising six children and the cost of this type of care was beyond her means. Our cardiologist, a kind fatherly figure, told us about an American Heart Association fund that assists families in need. The doctor walked mom through every detail on the application and the program quickly accepted us, providing the funds that made it possible for my cardiologist to monitor my health until I turned 18. This also meant that my doctor could share valuable information in research studies that would help not only me, but others with heart disease as well.
Other than my annual visits with the cardiologist, my childhood was not much different from any other child of the 60s. I didn’t feel different — although everyone wanted to listen to those odd skipped heartbeats. When my physical education teacher decided to exclude me from certain sports activities, my mom called our doctor to intercede and together they fought back with the latest statistics and studies provided by the AHA. Exercise was the key in keeping my heart muscle strong. It was a lesson in advocacy.
In 1972, my doctor reminded us that I would no longer be eligible for the AHA outreach program when I turned 18. He recommended performing a procedure — a cardiac catheterization — to know more about my prognosis. The AHA covered the cost of the procedure, done at Presbyterian St. Luke’s in Chicago, a research and teaching hospital.
The operation showed that I was born with a bicuspid aortic valve. A normal valve has three leaflets and I had two. The valve would have to be replaced at some point in the future. He also said I would need to have a heart catheterization every 10 years to monitor my heart condition. Six months later, when I turned 18, my relationship with my childhood doctor and the AHA took a hiatus, but mother’s relationship with the AHA continued as a volunteer in their awareness and fundraising efforts.
As a young adult, my cardiologist was my health guru and my family called me a health nut. My doctor taught me to take full responsibility for my health care as we discussed the exciting new advances in cardiac technology. A new procedure called an echocardiogram — an ultrasound for the heart — took the place of the heart cath. At that point, I still felt fine except for heart palpitations –- a racing feeling in my heart that lasted anywhere from a few minutes to almost an hour.
In the early 80s, I moved to Houston and found a doctor who was part of Denton Cooley’s team at the Texas Heart Institute — the premier institution for heart research, surgery and teaching. By the mid-80s, I was taking digoxin to regulate my heartbeat and my mom was chairing an annual fundraising gala for the Heart Association.
By the early 90s, the new Echo-Doppler procedurewas able to detect the direction and velocity of moving blood within the heart. It showed that my valve was now almost 70 percent blocked; the cusps were growing together and I had to face open-heart surgery.
Because I had healthy eating habits and was physically active, my heart muscle was still strong enough to withstand the surgery. However, the doctors said I might only live for five more years if I didn’t have the surgery. My doctor’s confidence was reassuring — valve replacement had become a routine procedure.
At 37, I had the surgery to replace my valve. My employer’s group insurance company called it “elective surgery” because I hadn’t had a heart attack. Fortunately, they listened to the respected Denton Cooley team at the Texas Heart Institute and did not require a second opinion. A team of heart surgeons replaced my faulty valve, giving me a new lease on life. My insurance plan covered all but $2,000 of the costs — I was their $100,000 woman! I was given the opportunity to join a research study that included filming my surgery and another study of the St. Jude Medical titanium valve.
In 2004, I listened to an executive from the American Heart Association give a speech about its life-saving work and community outreach to families in need. During the Q & A, I stood up and gave testimony to how the AHA had literally saved my life. Our hiatus was officially over and my new relationship with the AHA began
I am now a volunteer speaker for the AHA’s Learn and Live program; I’ve been a photographic model for Huntington Memorial Hospital Pasadena Champions Gallery, Go Red for Women campaign and the Annual Heart Ball.
In 2006, I lost mom to a brain tumor. I sat at her bedside with one hand holding hers and my other hand on her heart. I felt her last heartbeat and I felt her passion for life – grateful that we both had found new hope thanks to the American Heart Association.
November 10 was my 18th “Heart Birthday.” I’m one of over two million people who are able to live a full life with a mechanical valve and without the AHA it wouldn’t have been possible. I will be forever grateful. I hope my story will inspire you to listen, to love your heart and to join me as I support Go Red for Women.