Kelly DiMaggio was used to being the patient. She was the one born with half a heart. She was the one who went through three open-heart surgeries before turning 8. She was the one with irregular heartbeats, blood clots and constant fatigue as an adult. She was the one who pushed herself to lose 30 pounds through eating healthier and exercising more.
Her husband, Mike, was always the caregiver – until December 2017, when he had surgery on a finger. Now it was Kelly's turn to help Mike.
They came home after the uneventful surgery and turned on the television to watch a movie. He said he was so tired he probably wouldn't make it through the whole film, so when he passed out minutes later, she thought he was joking. Soon, he was ghost white, clammy and cold. Kelly called 911.
"I thought he was dying," she said.
While waiting for the paramedics, the emergency operator prepared her to start CPR. Kelly feared she wouldn't be able to perform it for long, given her weakened condition.
Fortunately, she didn't need to start. After being unconscious for 11 minutes, Mike began waking up as the paramedics arrived. The hospital staff assumed he had a bad reaction to the anesthesia from his finger surgery. But that didn't seem right to Mike or Kelly, whose doctor insisted Mike come see her.
Mike is in school learning to perform echocardiograms, which are ultrasounds of the heart. So when he looked at the screen, he could see a problem. He had a hole between two chambers of his heart, called an atrial septal defect. Doctors later said the frightening episode at home probably was a mini-stroke.
About 1 in 100 babies are born with a congenital heart defect, and holes between the heart chambers sometimes close on their own or don't cause problems. One side of Mike's heart had enlarged from the pressure, and he had surgery to close the hole in January 2018.
Mike's experience in the heart community had now added another layer. First, he helped Kelly through physical and emotional battles from her heart defect, and then he started studying to become an allied health provider, focusing on cardiac ultrasounds. He'd also accompanied Kelly for five years to support groups for adults with congenital heart disease and their loved ones. The night before Mike's heart procedure, they went to a support group session.
"For the first time, Mike introduced himself as a patient, and I said that tonight I'm here as a loved one for my husband," Kelly said. They live in Bethesda, Maryland, and were touched how the community rallied around Mike, including other doctors from the practice, one of whom came to the hospital on his day off.
In May 2018, Kelly and Mike were invited to the Heart's Delight Vintners Dinner in Washington, D.C., where a video showcased their story. While Kelly had spoken at events before, including the Baltimore Heart Walk, the Vintners Dinner was Mike's first speaking engagement and helped raise $80,000 for the American Heart Association.
Mike's heart is now fixed, but Kelly will eventually need a heart transplant.
"I was dealt this hand, and someone else was dealt another," she said. "I'm not letting my heart stop me from doing what I want to do."
Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.
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