If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that life can change dramatically, seemingly overnight. And for many survivors of heart disease and stroke, they have another point in time they can circle on a calendar where they experienced a life altering change. Fortunately, there is hope and wisdom in lived histories, and it’s important to share stories to pass on the learnings.
The American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement was started 17 years ago to raise awareness among women of their greatest health threat: cardiovascular disease. In those 17 years, Go Red for Women has done big things like funding life-saving women’s research, advancing public health policies, championing gender gap closure in research and STEM careers and building a platform for women to address their greatest health risk. But more work needs to be done. The price of cardiovascular disease is high, taking the lives of one in three women. Regrettably, we are losing ground in awareness particularly in our youngest and most diverse women.
Go Red for Women is working in communities around the world, including Kern County, to continue raising awareness about heart disease and stroke in women. Go Red also empowers all women to take action to lower their risk. Even modest changes to diet and lifestyle can reduce risk by as much as 80 percent. To assess your individual risk, learn your family health history and know your key personal health numbers: total cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and body mass index (BMI). Discuss this information with your medical provider.
It’s time to LIVE FIERCE and embrace the power to take charge of your own wellbeing. Be active, enjoy a healthy diet and monitor your blood pressure. These are actions we can all take to live well. Go Red for Women will be here to support you on your journey. It’s critical that we stand together and create change because losing even one woman to cardiovascular disease is too many.
Sonya Adams – Congenital heart defects
Sonya Adams was born with a heart defect. The aortic valve in her heart was bicuspid rather than tricuspid, a condition that wasn’t diagnosed until after the birth of her son. It was her obstetrician who first noticed a heart murmur and asked Adams if she knew about the murmur. Adams revealed this was news and was referred to a cardiologist.
Congenital heart defects (CHD) are the most common type of birth defect. It is estimated that over 1.3 million Americans alive today have some form of CHD. In Adams’ case, it wasn’t discovered until that office visit in adulthood.
At the cardiologist’s office, her physician performed an echocardiogram and confirmed her valve was deformed, a diagnosis of aortic stenosis. The initial plan was to keep an eye out for any symptoms and return for annual visits. Adams returned to her “normal” life but was diligent about living a healthy lifestyle. She worked out, watched what she ate and took steps to ensure she could protect her heart.
In the winter of 2018, Adams began to feel “not her best.” She was exhausted and having some issues breathing while exercising. Adams chalked the symptoms up to the fact that she was a wife and mother who was working full-time and pursuing a master’s degree. But something wasn’t right, so she decided to make an appointment with her cardiologist six months ahead of schedule.
When she met with the cardiologist, Adams was shocked to learn an aneurysm had begun to develop. The treatment required was surgery to replace her aortic valve. Previously Adams had thought surgery was years, even decades, away, so this felt overwhelming to the young mother.
Adams began to prepare herself and her family for the upcoming surgery and recovery. She graduated with her master’s degree on May 22, 2019, and was on the operating table shortly thereafter on June 19, 2019. After the surgery was complete, Adams felt like she had been run over by a truck. She spent seven days in the hospital and several months recovering.
Today, Adams feels great. She has started her new career and is back walking two to three miles a day. During the pandemic, Adams exercised on an elliptical machine at home and did weekly yoga to stay fit. She continues to have extra heart beats and rhythm issues, but manages with medication, a healthy lifestyle and acceptance.
Adams encourages others to learn their family health history. Adams’ grandmother had a stroke, her mother is a stroke survivor and has atrial fibrillation and her grandfather passed away from a heart attack. Knowing your family history and the age when issues were first detected in each of your close relatives is key information for your medical provider. Adams also believes that self-care is an important way to support overall health and wellbeing. Whatever self-care looks like for you, it is critical to make time to take care of yourself.
Erin Briscoe – Arrhythmia
Erin Briscoe’s career path has always revolved around storytelling. As a former morning news anchor, Briscoe would provide news, information and stories from around the community. Little did Briscoe know her own heart story would soon become the biggest headline in her life.
Back in 2019, Briscoe was not feeling well. Scheduled to go for a long weekend in Arizona to celebrate a friend’s upcoming wedding, Briscoe thought about canceling, but decided to go on the trip. While in Arizona, she experienced a medical emergency and found herself in the ER. As part of the routine testing in the emergency room, the hospital performed an electrocardiogram, or EKG. The physician told Briscoe she had a left bundle branch block. The physician explained it meant a delay or blockage of electrical impulses to the left side of the heart, causing irregular heartbeats and could indicate heart disease.
A few other tests were performed to ensure Briscoe could safely travel home and the physician noted that this could be a genetic condition. In fact, Erin knew about branch blocks because her sister has the condition, but on the right side. While her sister regularly experienced symptoms, Briscoe was caught off guard because up until that point, she had not noticed any.
Once home, Briscoe followed up with a cardiologist and went through a battery of tests. Luckily, the tests concluded that Briscoe could manage her condition with annual cardiology appointments. Eventually, she may need a pacemaker.
This experience has taught Briscoe to focus more on her health and pay attention to what her body is telling her. She encourages other women to do the same. Briscoe set a goal for 2021 to try new things, and for Christmas , her husband gave her a longboard. She’s happily learning to scoot around the neighborhood and live fierce and longboard.
Sharon Dunn — Quadricuspid aortic valve
Sharon Dunn has been a lifelong educator, spending her entire career inside classrooms and teaching young minds. Following her retirement in June 2019 as principal of Loudon Elementary School, Dunn found that there was still a lot to learn about herself and her health.
She has had heart palpitations her entire adult life. Sometimes they would feel light, while other times they felt erratic, similar to “a fish flip flopping out of water.” As the heart palpitations became more frequent and intense the older she got, she decided to go seek cardiologists for help. Dunn was first diagnosed with a severe aortic valve leak, and later a rare aortic valve. When her doctor said rare, he meant it — 1 in 200 in the world since 1862, according to Dunn. She had a quadricuspid aortic valve, meaning she had four cusps, instead of the usual three, in the aortic valve.
Dunn said she’s usually not a crier, but after hearing the diagnosis and that she would have to undergo open-heart surgery, it was overwhelming and shocking. As she was processing it all, she felt warmth around her arms, as if God was telling her she was in good hands, and she knew she had nothing to fear.
She was advised to have surgery within two months, and on Aug. 11, 2020, not even a month after her diagnosis, she was in the operating room.
After she recuperated from the surgery at home, she participated in a 36-week cardiac rehab regimen to help her get stronger. Now Dunn feels lighter and better all around following her surgery. The main takeaway from her experience, and advice she has for all women, is to pay attention to your body, communicate with your doctor and be your own advocate when you feel like there’s something wrong.
Breana and Alivia Karr
Breana and Alivia Karr – Congenital heart defects
Breana Karr had just given birth to her daughter, Alivia, when a nurse came into her room to perform a pulse oximetry screening. A pulse oximetry screening is a routine, non-invasive diagnostic test to measure the oxygen level in a newborn and can indicate critical heart defects. The test showed Alivia’s oxygen levels were low and the baby needed to be moved to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Confused as to what was happening, Breana Karr handed Alivia Karr over and her entire life changed.
Although everything seemed fine with the pregnancy, Alivia Karr was born with a severe heart defect (CHD) called truncus arteriosus. A person with a truncus arteriosus has one large artery, instead of two separate ones, to carry blood to the lungs and body. In a normal heart, the blood follows this cycle: body-heart-lungs-heart-body. With truncus arteriosus, the blood leaving the heart cannot follow this path because it has only one vessel. With only one artery, there is no specific path to the lungs for oxygen before returning to the heart to deliver oxygen to the body.
Alivia Karr endured her first open heart surgery at just 4-days-old. A second one followed at 4-weeks-old. Breana Karr prepared to dedicate her life to her medically fragile baby and began extensive research into Alivia Karr’s condition and where she could find the best care. Alivia Karr would need 24-hour supervision to secure her airway, a variety of medications and a ventilator at home. Tragically, the surgeries and medical procedures proved too much for Alivia Karr’s tiny heart and she passed away at 7-months-old. Breana Karr was never able to bring her daughter home.
But Breana Karr’s story doesn’t end there. She began to experience heart palpitations and immediately made an appointment with a cardiologist. Although they initially thought it could be grief, she wore a 24-hour heart monitor, and a variety of diagnostic tests were performed. It was later discovered that Breana Karr has a Patent Foramen Ovale, or PFO, which is a hole between the two atria of the heart. More than a quarter of the population has a hole in their heart, and for most it causes no adverse health effects. However, some individuals do develop symptoms. Breana Karr’s treatment plan is currently under development, but she has already begun to make heart healthy lifestyle choices to support her heart and those of her family.
Breana Karr wants other women to know that it is critical to maintain a healthy lifestyle to protect the “most important organ in your body.” She shares her story, and Alivia Karr’s story, to support other parents of CHD babies. Breana Karr believes it is essential for the Go Red for Women movement to continue to fund research to explore heart disease and women. “Knowledge is power” and she wants more babies to make it to their first birthday and more women to be able to access innovative treatments to support their own heart health.
Celie Vanderlei – Heart disease and stroke
Celie Vanderlei’s routine visit to her primary care doctor in June 2019 didn’t go as expected. During the appointment, the physician found a heart murmur and referred Vanderlei to a cardiologist. At the cardiologist’s office, she learned that she had aortic valve stenosis, a condition where a valve from the heart to the body does not properly open and close and may also leak blood. The treatment required was a valve replacement.
The cardiologist felt that if they waited a few months, Vanderlei would be a good candidate for a new, non-invasive valve replacement called a transcatheter aortic valve replacement, or TAVR. With a TAVR procedure, a new valve is inserted via a catheter versus through open-heart surgery, reducing patient recovery time.
In January 2020, Vanderlei’s TAVR procedure was performed and she experienced a successful recovery. Unfortunately, Vanderlei also suffers from back issues which began to require frequent visits to the hospital. These visits coincided with the spike of COVID-19 cases in the community adding additional stress because Vanderlei was alone in the hospital and concerned that if she contracted COVID-19, she would pass it to her family.
In December 2020, Vanderlei and her husband celebrated 60 years of marriage. Their children and grandchildren joined in the celebration safely by orchestrating a parade in front of the couple’s house. Vanderlei’s newly repaired heart was full. About a week after the celebration, Vanderlei was on her back patio and lost consciousness. She woke up in the hospital and was told she had suffered a stroke. Due to the pandemic, she was again alone in the hospital and trying to understand her condition but was having difficulty due to aftereffects of the stroke.
Vanderlei was discharged from the hospital a few days later and began follow up appointments to learn what caused the stroke. She discovered she had atrial fibrillation (AFib), an irregular heartbeat and a clot had formed which caused the stroke. But Vanderlei was also lucky. She had an alternative vessel connection in her brain that was activated during the stroke. This alternate connection began supplying her brain with the blood and oxygen it needed, right when it was needed. Not everyone has this alternate route and had that connection not been made, Vanderlei would have been in serious trouble.
Today, Vanderlei gives thanks to God for protecting her, and is also grateful to the medical community and researchers who are developing new treatments like TAVR, because patients like her benefit. Vanderlei shares her story to let other women know they are not alone and a return to better health is possible. She feels blessed to be tending to her garden full of succulents along with having more time to enjoy her wonderful family, which includes nine grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren.
Dr. Laura Ragoonanan
Dr. Laura Ragoonanan, Neurologist
Dr. Laura Ragoonanan knew she wanted two things out of a career: she wanted to make an impact and wanted a challenge that would be engaging. The career she found was as a neurologist at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital. Her favorite part of each workday is seeing a patient get better. She’s inspired every day by those in her care and proud to be a part of their long-term health and recovery.
Dr. Ragoonanan’s journey to become a doctor took her all over the world, studying in Italy, Southeast Asia, the United Kingdom, Israel and the Caribbean. She began her studies in the United Kingdom, spent time in New York City as a senior medical student and was a resident at Northwell Hospital. This diverse set of training sites taught Dr. Ragoonanan different perspectives and approaches to patient care. And the Kern County community is benefitting.
Dr. Ragoonanan chose the field of neurology because she finds the human nervous system fascinating. It’s ironic that she deals with the organ most people don’t really “think” about, yet it’s what you use to think. Taking care of your heart and mind is important. She recommends all women work with their medical providers to assess their risk for heart disease and stroke then take steps to reduce risk by managing their key health numbers, eating well and being active. She also wants everyone to learn the warning signs of a stroke which can sometimes be subtle and hard to identify. Dr. Ragoonanan recommends using the acronym F.A.S.T. to help you remember. F.A.S.T. stands for facial drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulty and time to call 9-1-1. She also encourages everyone to be on the lookout for new headaches and changes in brain function like confusion, memory loss or disorientation as that could be another warning sign.
Dr. Laura Ragoonanan
Cardiovascular disease runs in Dr. Ragoonanan’s family, so she follows her own advice and enjoys eating healthy, well-balanced meals and maintaining an active lifestyle through running, Pilates and gardening. She also enjoys traveling. Among her favorite trips was a five-day backpacking hike through the Peruvian Andes that culminated at Machu Picchu. Dr. Ragoonanan is living fiercely every day as she has learned how to bounce back from challenging days and keeps moving forward with determination, dedication and discipline.