Meghan Stapleton and her husband, Mark, of Houston went to visit his family in Melbourne, Australia, with their two young sons right after school let out in the summer of 2017. The couple even got to celebrate their anniversary — just the two of them — in Sydney before the family flew home. On June 10, Stapleton, then 37, was on the last stretch of a 31-hour travel day when she started to feel unusual pain. "It was like an arrow shot through my left arm," she says. Her fingers were numb on both sides, and she started to panic.
With six hours left to go on the flight, Mark tried to calm her the best he could and told her to go back to sleep. When she returned home, she still felt off but attributed it to jet lag. On Monday on her lunch break at work, Stapleton was taking a walk with the "lunch bunch," describing to her colleagues what had happened on the plane. Suddenly she began experiencing the same symptoms she felt two days earlier. She was extremely out of breath and thought, "Even if this is an anxiety attack, I need to go to the hospital." By the time Stapleton walked to her car, she couldn't concentrate and began throwing up. A coworker called 911 and she was taken to Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center in Houston. In the ambulance an EKG and blood pressure check showed no signs of a heart attack. Stapleton had an angiogram, and doctors determined she had a rare condition called spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD. Typically, SCAD results in a heart attack or rhythm abnormalities and can be fatal, but in Stapleton's case, it didn't present itself as a normal heart attack. It was such a bad blockage that doctors told Stapleton her heart was a ticking time bomb and she could have died at any moment. Her condition was critical, and she was airlifted to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center for emergency double bypass surgery. For a few weeks, Stapleton felt better. But it wasn't long before she started feeling bad again and went into cardiogenic shock. Suddenly, her heart couldn't pump enough blood to meet her body's needs. She was being kept alive through electric shock (defibrillation) and CPR.
Stapleton was sedated and on a heart pump for two weeks. On June 13, the Stapletons' wedding anniversary, doctors performed another angiogram. Stapleton joked with her husband that they would have to renew their vows because, technically, she died on the table that day.
Doctors determined her heart would not be able to heal itself and put her on the list for a transplant. Five days later, on June 25, she received a new heart.
"I feel blessed, extremely blessed," she says.
Over three years later, Stapleton still has regular checkups but is healthy overall. Just last year, she completed a 5-kilometer run — something she never thought she would be able to do. She donated the proceeds she raised to the American Heart Association and is grateful for research into heart disease that the AHA supports.
When asked why she thinks she survived, her response is simple: "I have more work to do."