Surgery fixed her heart. Controlling her thoughts helped her cope.

By Nancy Brown, American Heart Association CEO

Bonnie Gwin and her husband at Chautauqua Lake in New York. (Photo courtesy of Bonnie Gwin)
Bonnie Gwin and her husband at Chautauqua Lake in New York. (Photo courtesy of Bonnie Gwin)

On a front porch in far western New York, Bonnie Gwin is resting on a white wicker couch, watching sailboats bob along Chautauqua Lake. She pats the blue- and white-striped cushions, encouraging a guest to plop down next to her.

Sometimes the companion is one of her parents, sometimes one of her sons. It could be her husband or one of her sisters, a cousin or one of the many close friends from various stages of her life.

When the sun is rising over the lake, Bonnie and her special visitor sip from coffee mugs. When the sun is setting, they clink wine glasses.

They're always smiling. Often laughing. Never is there a hint of the reason Bonnie – a globetrotting corporate wiz – has conjured this image: the looming heart surgery that forced her to accept she's not indestructible.

Transporting herself to her favorite place surrounded by her favorite people was Bonnie's way of coping with the fact doctors were going into her heart and weren't sure what they would find. Although they knew her mitral valve was faulty, they didn't know whether it could be repaired or if it needed to be replaced, and they had to wait to decide whether to do it via robotic surgery or by opening her chest.

Bonnie wasn't accustomed to having such little control, especially for something so big. Fortunately, she found a coping mechanism: positive visualization. All those imaginary visits before helped prepare her mind for the long road back, one that would eventually return her to that very spot.

"When you roll into surgery, it's very comforting to remind yourself that a lot of people care about you and want to be with you," she said.

February is American Heart Month, a time to pay extra attention to the fact that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans – and that it's the No. 1 killer of women, claiming more lives than all forms of cancer combined. Throughout this month, I'll use this space to spotlight women with empowering stories related to improving and extending lives in the wake of heart disease. Each has an applicable takeaway message.

A great thing about Bonnie's tale is that what helped her get through her ordeal can help anyone get through anything.

Bonnie's family lounging on the white wicker couch on the porch facing Chautauqua Lake. (Photo courtesy of Bonnie Gwin)
Bonnie's family lounging on the white wicker couch on the porch facing Chautauqua Lake. (Photo courtesy of Bonnie Gwin)

***

At the time her heart disease manifested, Bonnie was in her current job: vice chairman and co-managing partner of the global CEO & Board Practice at Heidrick & Struggles. In other words, she helps companies all over the world hire CEOs and board members.

Clearly, she fulfilled her teenage vow to "dream big."

Bonnie grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. Her dad ran a small accounting practice he took over from his father. Her mom was a homemaker who encouraged Bonnie and her sister to pursue careers that interested them.

She set her sights on becoming a foreign service officer. With the promise of travel, responsibility and prestige, it seemed perfect for an ambitious teen. And she was well on her way, emerging from Georgetown University with a bachelor's degree, a masters and a job offer.

"I turned it down," she said. "I wanted to plant a flag in the United States. I didn't want to be gone a lot."

She instead went to IBM for about 13 years. The last 22 have been with Heidrick & Struggles. Funny thing is, that job has taken her around the world many times over. Her job is based in New York, but her home is in Cleveland, adding to her weekly travels.

"I'm the kind of person with a bag packed at all times, with a second set of items in that bag," she said, laughing. "I like to tell people my office is seat 23C. It's a crazy life, but I enjoy it."

***

A roommate at Georgetown is partly responsible for Bonnie rerouting her career plans. More specifically, it was the roommate's brother, Jim. They were engaged when Bonnie chose to remain stateside. He works in Cleveland and they have stayed based there.

In 2011, one of their sons was studying near London. On a flight to visit him, Bonnie fainted, landing so hard that she broke her collarbone. She was carrying on with the family trip in England, then had to rush onto another plane.

Her dad was dying.

After the funeral, Bonnie had surgery to repair her collarbone. She then became more serious about her health. Living in Cleveland, she turned to the experts at the renowned Cleveland Clinic. She wound up in an executive health program for women led by Dr. Roxanne Sukol.

During a checkup, Sukol heard a loud heart murmur. Bonnie recalled that when she was in high school a doctor had mentioned hearing the same thing. To be safe, Sukol sent Bonnie to a cardiologist, Dr. William Stewart. He isolated the problem in her mitral valve.

"You're not going to keel over from this now, but I want to fix it before it damages your heart," he told her. "You're not there yet though. I want to wait until the last possible moment."

***

In June 2014, Stewart declared the time had come. She either needed surgery within three months or had to visit him every three months … and would still end up in surgery.

She scheduled the operation for the day after Labor Day. Then she went into business mode, trying to "problem-solve my way to the best possible outcome."

She researched techniques, surgeons and facilities. All signs pointed back to the Cleveland Clinic, a huge comfort. Perhaps pressing her luck, she kept digging through the internet to learn about her condition. One video too many led to sleepless nights.

A nutritionist helped prepare her body for the looming trauma.

Then she found a presurgical meditation program.

The online program asked the listener to focus on "a very positive personal place" where you could be surrounded by loved ones. The choice was easy. Bonnie's family vacation home in Chautauqua, New York – about a two-hour drive from Cleveland – already was the site of countless wonderful memories over the past 20 summers.

She was told that the more time her thoughts spent on that front porch before the operation, the more relaxed she'd be for the big day. Returning to the front porch in her mind also would help speed her recovery.

Best of all, she got to see her dad again.

This is the seat Bonnie envisioned herself sitting in during her meditations. (Photo courtesy of Bonnie Gwin)
This is the seat Bonnie envisioned herself sitting in during her meditations. (Photo courtesy of Bonnie Gwin)

***

Bonnie vividly remembers entering an operating room that looked like something out of "Star Wars."

Her next memory: looking around the recovery room and thinking, "I made it! I'm here!"

Doctors repaired her mitral valve rather than replacing it. Alas, they had to open her chest. That made recovery slower and more difficult. Annoyed by the pace, she pushed herself too hard, only to suffer the consequences.

Every lesson, good and bad, went into creating the new Bonnie.

The 2020 version still meditates and uses positive visualization. She's also on the board of the Cleveland Clinic. And she's more invested in relationships, particularly as a mentor to young women.

"I've spent more time thinking about my legacy – when I look back on my life, what do I want to be remembered for?" she said. "I don't shortcut vacations and I try not to be on the phone all the time. I've learned not to worry about silly things that aren't important or that are out of my control. As long as I feel I've done everything I could, I can sleep well at night. It's a great perspective – but a heck of a way to get it!"

***

This story must end where it began. The front porch facing Chautauqua Lake.

The view of Chautauqua Lake that Bonnie envisioned to relax and speed her recovery. (Photo courtesy of Bonnie Gwin)
The view of Chautauqua Lake that Bonnie envisioned to relax and speed her recovery. (Photo courtesy of Bonnie Gwin)

Bonnie returned there the February after her surgery. As emotional as that was, it hardly compared to her visit a few months later, in the summer, "when it looked like it was when I envisioned it."

"I felt joy and gratitude, and also felt like I'd dodged a bullet, all because I went for physicals and followed through with everything, which busy people don't always do," she said. "It all led to this moment. How lucky I was that I followed up and listened to what people told me and invested in my own health. And I had my family and friends with me for the whole journey."

A version of this story appeared on Thrive Global.

If you have questions or comments about this story, please email editor@heart.org.


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