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Mellie’s Story: Heart Disease in a Young San Antonio Latina
By Melissa Garcia
August 28, 2014 is a day that changed my life and a day I will forever remember. I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and Dilated Cardiomyopathy.
At the age of 38, I thought this was a disease for the elderly, and I wondered how this be possible. I knew I had suffered months of discomfort, shortness of breath, fatigue and extreme bloating. I had been to the emergency room several times and was even referred to a gastroenterologist.
Determined to find out what was going on with me, I went back to the emergency room and it was then that an EKG, Kat scan, and sonogram were performed. It seemed to happen from one minute to the next that I would be told that a specialist was going to come see me and that I was going to be admitted into the hospital immediately. I was at a loss for words and confused; I had no idea what was going on.
A cardiologist visited me in my room, introduced himself and explained what was going on with my health. He told me that I was in severe heart failure and he gave me only three months to live. I was told my heart pump rate was at 15% and I had extreme fluid buildup, about 45 pounds to be exact.
I was absolutely terrified, sad, nervous, overwhelmed - every emotion available. I didn’t understand why this happened or what caused it. But after working with my cardiologist, I learned that I had hypertension that wasn’t being managed. I had a poor diet and I drank alcohol regularly. Suddenly, it all made sense. I had abused my health for so long, it took a toll on my heart.
I stayed in the hospital for a week and was put on a low sodium diet and I was given plenty medication that was going to stabilize me. They had to get my heart stabilized and reduce the fluid I had built up in order for me to be discharged. Leaving the hospital, I was unsure about myself and my health. There were many things that I needed to change including my mindset, but was I willing to do this?
All of this meant changing my lifestyle, remaining stress free, not working for four months, and most of all taking care of my health in a way I never had before. Everything was so overwhelming for me and for a whole year after my diagnosis, I did the complete opposite.
I continued to keep my doctor appointments and take my medicines however my lifestyle didn’t change. Exactly a year after receiving my diagnosis I was admitted back into the hospital with exacerbated heart failure. It was then my cardiologist sat in my room for an hour and explained the importance of being a compliant patient. If I wasn’t willing to change, I wouldn’t make it to see another year.
I had to buckle down and follow my doctor orders. I didn’t want to end up back in the hospital for any reason so it was then that I gave up alcohol entirely, started a low sodium diet, began exercising, and most importantly, found love. My heart pump rate is now 30%, I don’t have any fluid buildup and I am living a stable life with heart failure. It just took a little discipline and self-motivation! If I can do it, anyone can do it. The one thing I learned is that when it seems like your body is telling you something – listen. Don’t take a chance.
Melissa Garcia, now 40, is a new volunteer with the American Heart Association and has agreed to share her story in order to encourage other young people like her to focus on their heart health. To learn more about cardiovascular diseases and stroke, visit heart.org or call 210.810.3100. If you or someone you know is experiencing health issues, see a medical professional immediately.
Dr. John CalhoonDr. John Calhoon is the American Heart Association (AHA) 2015 Heart & Stroke Walk Chair. He leads the eight member Executive Leadership Team made up of San Antonio corporate and medical executives that oversees planning and promotion of the Heart & Stroke Walk.
Dr. Calhoon has had a guiding role in the evolution of cardiothoracic medicine in San Antonio and has been a part of the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio for 25 years. In 2010, Dr. Calhoon was named Founding Chairman of the Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery. His areas of expertise include congenital heart surgery, adult cardiac surgery, and pulmonary transplantation. In 2015, he was formally announced as Director of the UTHSCSA Heart and Vascular Institute.
Because of his dedication to and expertise in cardiovascular disease care, he has been a tremendous champion of the AHA and its mission for more than twenty years. It is this dedication and leadership that have made him a natural fit to lead the charge in making the 2015 Heart & Stroke Walk the most successful to date in community awareness and involvement.
Additionally, the corporate partnerships that Dr. Calhoon has worked to secure will go directly to funding research and the implementation of vital programs right here in San Antonio.
To learn more about the 2015 Heart & Stroke Walk taking place on October 24, visit www.SanAntonioHeartWalk.org.
A young man with a successful career and a new baby on the way, John Mcgill, thought that at 32-years-old, health problems were his last worry.
“I was very healthy,” McGill explained. “I worked out twice a day playing basketball regularly and ate fairly healthy. I had no family history, and to this day, doctors have been unable to explain why I had a stroke.”
On October 10, 2012, John was rushed to the emergency room after falling to the ground on his bathroom floor, paralyzed on his left side and barely able to breathe.
“I called out for my girlfriend, who was seven months pregnant at the time, and she couldn’t help me up, but before I asked her to call 9-1-1, I asked her to call my parents, because I just knew I was going to die. The entire time I was waiting for the ambulance, though, all I could think about was my unborn daughter.”
EMS did eventually transport John to Northeast Baptist Hospital and was then taken to St. Luke’s Hospital, where he was diagnosed as having had a stroke.
“I stayed in ICU for about three or four days, and by the grace of God, I was able to move my legs after the fourth day,” John said. “I was told I wouldn’t ever be able to move anything on my left side again, but I just woke up at 2:30 in the morning and it was like someone told me to move my leg or arm, and I moved my leg.”
John was transferred to Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center in November and his daughter, Jaliyah McGill, was born on Dec 6.
“My whole motivation for working so hard was my daughter,” John explains. “I was so excited to be alive for her. I remember that the only way I could open my hand during rehab was envisioning holding my daughter.”
John missed Jaliyah’s baby shower, which the couple had been planning for in October, right after his stroke, but he was able to participate in the birth of his daughter and stand through the whole process.
“I’m back to my normal routine, but I still have no feeling in the left side,” John said. “I can’t open ketchup packets, it takes me longer to get in and out of my car, and it takes me longer to get dressed, but I’m so blessed to be alive.”
John still goes to the gym and works out every day, attributing his recovery to the fact that he was in good shape prior to his stroke.
“90 percent of recovery is attitude,” John explains. “You have to have hope that things will get better and you can get better. From a health perspective, before the stroke I was very healthy, and that was important, because it could have been a lot worse, so now I promote health to my friends and family.”
John is grateful to his girlfriend, his family and friends, who have been a source of strength and support throughout his recovery, and he reminds people to stay positive.
“God doesn’t make any mistakes, so this happened for a reason,” John said. “If it took me having a stroke to motivate others and possibly prevent a stroke from happening to someone else, then there’s the reason.”
Gabriella Michelle Villalobos
Gabriella Michelle Villalobos was born with the cards stacked against her. Two months premature with gastrointestinal issues, ear and kidney problems and only half a heart, Gabby was not expected to live beyond a few breaths.
But, as her older brother, Nathan, likes to say, “That’s my Gabby sister, and she’s a fighter.”
At 19 weeks pregnant, Vanessa Villalobos learned that her child would be born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a birth defect in which the left side of the heart is underdeveloped.
“It scared me to know that Gabby’s first breath could be her last,” Vanessa explained. “But, I prayed and I cried and I prayed some more and eventually I was at peace. I just knew Gabby would be o.k.”
In mid-October, Vanessa went into labor two months early. While the doctors attempted to sustain the pregnancy until November, Gabby was born October 22, 2011.
“I knew they were going to take her away to the NICU immediately, so when the doctors told me I was going to have to be asleep during the C-section, I was so scared I would miss her first breath and possibly her last,” Vanessa said.
Gabby took her first breath but it was not her last. She was immediately taken in for surgery for gastrointestinal issues that were causing bile to back up in her system. Doctors also discovered that Gabby suffered from unbalanced atrioventricular canal (AV canal) defect, a congenital heart defect caused by structural abnormalities of her heart.
“I was crushed, because that meant they couldn’t perform the surgery to fix her HLHS right away,” Vanessa said.
Gabby spent three weeks recovering from her gastrointestinal surgery and continued to develop neurologically before undergoing her first of three open heart surgeries.
“When she came out of the operating room after her first heart surgery, and I was able to see her, I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life,” Vanessa described as they wheeled Gabby back to the NICU. “While we waited during the surgery, it feels like everything is being sucked right out of you, but to see her alive and her heart beating was incredible.”
Nicknamed “Diva,” Gabby continued her fight with the heart of a warrior. This is when the Villalobos family began saying that Gabby had “half a heart full of love.”
Gabby pulled through a variety of surgeries and was able to go home in March of 2012.
“I was so scared, because anything could make her sick; catching a cold could kill her,” Vanessa explained. “I was scared to take her anywhere, but I finally asked the cardiologist if I could take her out. We couldn’t live our lives in a bubble and be afraid. My only regret is that I didn’t hold her enough, naturally, afraid that I would hurt her.”
But, the Villalobos family did take Gabby to the zoo, to the mall, to baseball games. They even made it to see the Easter bunny.
In May 2012, Gabby was back in the hospital for her second heart surgery. In and out of the hospital between May and December for more surgeries and procedures, Vanessa remembers Gabby as a happy child.
“She fought through it again and again but with a smile,” Vanessa said. “She was always smiling and dancing.”
In Dec. 2012, after Gabby was able to celebrate Thanksgiving with her family, she was admitted back into the hospital. Diagnosed with the flu, she was put on a ventilator, launching a rollercoaster month for the Villalobos family.
“I watched her die over and over again and have them revive her that whole month,” Vanessa said.
Beating the odds, Gabby was taken off the ventilator and able to breather on her own on Dec. 26.
“Before Thanksgiving, I had prayed that I would dance with her again and on New Year’s Eve, I remembered my prayer, and I held her and we danced cheek to cheek,” Vanessa recalled.
By mid-January the doctors told Vanessa and Anthony that there was nothing else they could do for Gabby.
“Family and friends gathered to give Gabby a trip to Disney World in her hospital room, and we threw her a quincenera, because she had made it to 15 months old,” Vanessa said. “She had been poked and prodded and cut open and she fought; she fought so hard to live, but her little body had started to shut down, and she was now fighting to die.”
On Feb. 5, Vanessa gave Gabby a bath and held her.
“I remember, Nathan (Gabby’s brother, who was two-years old), didn’t want to see her, but when my mother said she was going to come in and see Gabby, he jumped up from the waiting room and ran through the halls down to her room. He ran into her room, kissed her leg and called ‘Gabby’. She opened her eyes, looked at him, sighed and took her last breathe.”
Vanessa lovingly recalls the princess funeral they were able to give Gabby thanks to family, friends, coworkers and complete strangers who were touched by Gabby’s life.
“I was so proud to have witnessed her birth, her fight and her journey,” Vanessa said. “Now I want to raise awareness that heart disease is not just a disease of the elderly, but a disease that affects everyone. Gabby impacted so many people, and who knows what the doctors were able to learn from her.”
Vanessa added that she supports organizations like the American Heart Association, because “with funding comes research, with research comes knowledge, with knowledge comes hope and with hope, maybe we can find a cure.”
Vanessa said she wants people to believe in miracles and to let families who are struggling with children born with congenital heart defects know that they should live life and “Never give up. Never back down, and never lose faith.”
A family man who has been married for nearly 50 years, has four daughters, eight granddaughters and two great grandchildren, Robert Prince describes his life as excellent and rewarding. His positive attitude is infectious, and he aims to inspire those around him and share the life lessons he has learned.
His greatest gift sprang from his biggest tragedy when his daughter, Stephanie, saved his life.
Prince was not a stranger to heart disease. In 2004, he had a pacemaker implanted and mitral valve replacement. But, nothing prepared him and his family for March 2010 when Prince had a cardiac arrest at his home in Universal City, Texas.
A typical evening watching his grandchildren while his wife played bingo, Prince began to feel stabbing chest pains around dinner time. His daughter Stephanie, who had just happened to return to the house to pick up a forgotten homework assignment for her niece, was just walking out again when her niece screamed, “Papa!”
Stephanie rushed to his side and immediately told her nieces to bring the phone so she could call 9-1-1. While on the phone with 9-1-1 operators, Stephanie cleared Prince’s airway and began chest compressions. Stephanie was not CPR trained, but she did have a friend who was a paramedic and remembered some of the steps to take when giving someone CPR, including calling 9-1-1 and pushing hard and fast on the center of the chest.
What seemed like an eternity, Stephanie explained, was less than 10 minutes, but paramedics arrived and took over chest compressions. The paramedics shocked him several times and gave him medications. Stephanie and the girls began to pray that their father and grandfather would survive.
Prince was rushed to the hospital. The doctors explained that since Prince had aspirated, this was a big concern because it could lead to other complications. Prince was eventually diagnosed with aspirated pneumonia and stayed in a drug-induced coma and on a heart pump for two weeks.
No one could predict whether Prince would have brain damage or stroke.
“It was scary because we weren’t sure whether he would be the same when he woke up,” Stephanie said. “The doctors could not stabilize his blood pressure for the next two weeks and every time they would remove the ventilation his blood pressure would rise.”
Prince said that his first conscious recognition when he opened his eyes was Stephanie looking right at him. Stephanie told him “Dad, you’ve had a cardiac arrest and you are at Northeast Methodist ICU.” She and the doctors kept telling him not to speak.
“But, of course, dad didn’t listen and his first comment was a sarcastic statement I can’t repeat, but we knew then he would be just fine.”
Prince was confused and still does not remember much of what happened to him that day and for several weeks following. But, he thanks the paramedic, physicians and especially his daughter for saving his life. The Prince family has been deeply affected by heart disease and stroke, but they continue to strive for better health and make better choices.
“The emotional support of family is huge,” Prince said. “And, volunteering and helping educate others about heart disease is critical to my recovery. I’m proud to be that success story and share it with others. If you’re given that second chance, fight for a healthier life.”
Heart disease runs in the Prince family. His daughter Stephanie was diagnosed in her late ‘20s with high blood pressure and high cholesterol. She has since lost 50 pounds with lap band surgery and has made choices that would improve her health with her prediabetic diagnoses. Mrs. Prince is a diabetic and has had a stroke, but she too has taken a second chance to get healthier.
“After my cardiac arrest, I received a pacemaker defibrillator. As I was recovering in a nursing home, I saw so many people who were depressed, and I did not want to be depressed,” Prince said. “I learned that stress is a big contributor to heart disease and so I now try to keep my stress levels down. I maintain an active lifestyle where I take care of my two young granddaughters who keep me moving, and I don’t smoke or drink. I’m just so thankful for the life I’ve been given. Today, I am a heart disease survivor who has lived life without regrets, but I owe it to others to give back.”
When Rachel was born in 1973, the doctors told her mother she would likely not live very long. Rachel was born with a rare form of heart disease Tetralogy of Fallot in a small town in Arkansas. Three-fourths of her heart needed to be reconstructed. And, in 1973, there was not much hope given to families whose children had the diagnosis. Her mom was her biggest champion and fought for her daughter to get some of the leading treatment of the time. She had several open heart surgeries before her 18th birthday, which she was not expected to celebrate because of her serious diagnosis.
When Rachel got married, and yearned for children, the doctors did not give her much hope. Because of her heart disease, childbirth would be risky. Twelve years ago, her daughter was born and her son is now 2 years old. Having her children, whom she refers to as miracles in themselves, did put stress on her heart. She underwent surgery after both births, but Rachel was strong enough to realize the complications she would endure, and her children are living proof that miracles do happen.
Rachel refers to her heart as her Frankenstein heart, after 6 major surgeries, her heart consists of various original and mechanical parts to make it function. She credits her life to the sheer determination and love of her family, the life-saving research that has produced new technologies and the grace of God, along with the amazing expertise of her medical teams.
Rachel reminds people that while she did not have a choice but to have heart disease because she was born with it. She must live a heart-healthy life; most people do have a choice and can make the healthy lifestyle choices that will keep them out of the hospital and off the operating table.
In late 2006, after an ongoing battle with congestive heart failure, Salina Rivera was told she had only a month to live and only one hope for survival: a Left Ventricular Assist device (LVAD). At the time, the LVAD was experimental and pending FDA approval.
But Salina was a warrior. At the recommendation of her cardiologists, she had the LVAD implanted directly below her heart. For the next two years, Salina refused the antidepressants often prescribed to patients of open-heart surgery and instead empowered herself to live a healthy life. She relied greatly on the American Heart Association’s online patient resources to learn as much as she could about her condition. Within two years, the LVAD was removed.
Now well-versed and with her own functioning heart, Salina is excited to speak at American Heart Association events to inspire others to take control of their health. And due to continued advancements, the LVAD is no longer experimental.
As a dedicated volunteer with the American Heart Association’s annual Vestido Rojo event, Monica Bonilla has always believed in our mission.
One weekend in early 2009, this belief in our mission hit home. On Saturday, Bonilla’s mother learned at Vestido Rojo that taking an aspirin at the onset of a stroke can help reduce brain tissue loss. The next day, when she thought she might be having a stroke, Bonilla’s mother took an aspirin and called her daughter, who feared the worst and quickly got her to the hospital. The doctor who treated her mother for the stroke and gave her medication that reversed its effects later shared that it was likely the aspirin that saved her life! Without the AHA, she wouldn’t have taken the aspirin.
To attend an AHA event in the San Antonio area and learn how you too can save lives, visit our website at heart.org/sanantonio.