Last fall I mentioned to my doctor that I get out of breath easily. I was working out more consistently and harder than I ever had in my life. I told him I thought it was just me – I was turning 40 soon! And, everyone has their “thing” that makes life challenging. He disagreed and had me get a few tests. I had a breathing test done and an echocardiogram. The tests came back normal; I was done.
The doctor wasn’t done. I was sent to a local cardiologist.
This cardiologist listened to my whole “breathing” saga. I was born with pectus excavatum. When I was born the doctor told my parents if the sternum had been any closer to my heart I would need surgery. That was a green light to us, and we never thought much about it. I never even thought I looked different as I grew! I always told myself to “push on through” when I’d get out of breath because I thought it was just my pectus excavatum bothering me. I didn’t want that to stop me!
I learned to adapt through the years. I realized I wasn’t cut out for track in middle school after I had enjoyed running short distances in elementary school. I exercised on my own through aerobics, weight lifting, and walking. I was always up for a new challenge. No matter what activity I engaged in, I was always dead last. I had learned not to let it bother me. Through the years, I asked doctors if my pectus excavatum should cause me to get out of breath. They all said no.
My husband, Patrick, asked me to talk to my doctor in my early 20’s, I had an echocardiogram that came back normal. We had been studying abroad in Europe together through Oklahoma Christian University for a semester. I puffed my way up the Swiss Alps. Patrick was concerned, but I was so used to this – I had always been this way. The doctor told me to continue what I was doing, stop and get my breathing under control, and go again. I was used to quietly recovering and usually no one noticed.
Until this past year.
My children were telling me I was getting out of breath a lot. It was getting harder to recover quietly. People started asking me if I was ok when I exercised with them or walked up a stairway with them. I got so tired of explaining, I would just say I had a breathing problem.
I had more tests done, and quite frankly, I was getting tired of them! After a CT/angiogram test, EKG, stress test, and TEE the answers came together. My oxygen dropped down to 70% on my exercise test. The CT scan showed my pectus excavatum was putting pressure on the right atrium of my heart, and my heart was actually caught under my sternum. I also learned for the first time I had an ASD, a valve that had never closed at birth. I was sent to Cleveland Clinic for more tests and to visit more doctors.
Open heart surgery was necessary to save my life.
If I did nothing, and I considered that an option, I would develop congestive heart failure, need a lung transplant, have a heart attack, or other physical failings. I found out that 3.0 was a severely deep pectus excavatum; mine was 8.8.
I was going to endure a brutal surgery.
An incision was made under my breasts. The cardiologist cut into my heart and repaired my septum and put a ring around my tricuspid valve. That decision was made in the middle of the surgery because my sternum was so deep it had caused my tricuspid valve to be indented. Then, the thoracic surgeon cut the bone out from underneath four ribs on each side of my sternum, lifted the sternum, and pulled the ribs and sternum together with a titanium plate. Several screws were put in place to keep the sternum lifted. I was in surgery about 7 hours.
I truly had to LET GO of control like never before.
I had to overcome fear.
I remember standing in the kitchen one day and praying to God…I’m so tired of being scared, God. Please help me! I don’t want to cry all the time. That exact moment the Christian song I was listening to changed from singing to someone reading scripture: “I am holding your right hand. I will help you. DO NOT FEAR!”
I immediately looked up the scripture in my Bible: Isaiah 41:13. I said that verse out loud over and over again until I quit crying. What a heavenly gift! I felt like God had just gently embraced my tear-stained face and said, “Do not fear, Heather, I’m HOLDING your hand!”
My husband and I were determined to not let Satan steal the joy from our lives before this surgery.
Life was still going! We had a lot to be engaged in, and I wanted to be present fully, not fearfully “waiting” for the future! Without speaking it, a little part of us wondered if I would survive the surgery. We wanted to enjoy each day and continue to serve our awesome Heavenly Father and Lord Jesus Christ!
One night I went to bed trying not to tremble with fear. My husband held me and said Psalm 23 aloud for us. I fell asleep and woke up to a bright light in my face. I thought the neighbors were having a wild party. Squinting, I realized it was a beautiful moonbeam shining on my face!
I heard a strong, clear, deep voice say, “Who put the moon in the sky?”
“I did, and you’re worried about your surgery?” And then….laughter! The strong, clear, deep voice changed to laughter. It reminded me of my Dad’s laughter. I felt incredibly safe. I fell asleep smiling and laughing as I pulled the sheet over my face to block the moonlight – what a heavenly gift!
I shared those gifts with my loved ones and took them with me on May 24, 2012, as I was rolled into surgery. I had no idea how many more challenges awaited me after surgery. But, with Jesus as my strength, I am here today!
I praise God and give Him all the glory for more gifts than I can name here in HIS Story! I’m breathing like never before. I still get excited when I dash up a set of stairs and don’t get out of breath – let alone when I run and walk up hills!
No matter what trials we experience or blessings greater than we can imagine here on earth, Jesus Christ tells us life can be full as we look forward to heaven!
“The thief comes only to steal and to kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” John 10:10
From Heather: I have found myself in different places and situations throughout my 40 years of life, and I’m thankful God has held my hand every step of the way. I can’t imagine life here on earth without God. He is my everything!
God blessed me with a husband better than I could have imagined for the past 17 years. We are looking forward to celebrating our 18th wedding anniversary this December. We have three children: Cassidy (14), Nathan (12), and Bridget (7). Life is full and I’m so very grateful. I love my family and enjoy being a stay at home mom. I have kept up my elementary teaching license through the years. Before we had children, Patrick and I both taught in Japan for a year and then following that I taught second grade in Texas.
I’ve always tried to remember that life is an adventure and I’ve learned (definition of learned here-struggled at times) to enjoy being in the moment wherever I am and to see what God has in store.
I consider meeting Heather a divine appointment. I listened at Women of Purpose 2012 as Heather shared her story. We’d never met. But, I had joined hands with my husband and prayed for her on May 24 – the day of her surgery. (Heather’s brother, Grant, is my husband’s friend.)
I also knew Heather’s husband, Patrick, well. He’d been my marriage counselor for years. We knew so many of the same people, but still, we hadn’t met. When we spoke after the conference, it seemed as if we’d known each other awhile – like we should have met already.
As we talked, she stood in awe of how many prayed for her that day and since – people she didn’t know. I stood in awe of a God who orchestrates our lives so lovingly that we meet those who impact our journeys at just the right time.
It’s my honor to share Heather’s courageous story. Her faith in the face of fear is a lesson to us all.
Thanks for sharing, Heather!