Tag Archives: surgery

Jodi Saso’s 
Heart for Running

February 18, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For many avid runners, qualifying for the Boston Marathon is considered the pinnacle of their running career. For 35-year-old Jodi Saso, completing the Boston Marathon was that and so much more.

Not only did it mark a major feat in her running career, but Saso crossed the finish line just 10 weeks after undergoing major heart surgery. Completing the marathon was a personal confirmation that she had risen above her heart condition and could continue “life as usual,” despite this unexpected setback.

“I didn’t want to be a victim of my circumstances and lay around feeling sorry for myself,” says Saso. “It was all about determination and not wanting to live that life. I figured I had one shot to do this, and I wasn’t going to let my surgery get in the way.”

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This is all even more amazing when you consider the fact that Saso had taken up running just several years ago when she decided she need to do something to get herself and her dog into shape. The pounds began to fall off, running became easier, and it wasn’t long before Saso had developed a new passion.

Saso found running to be a natural fit, and before long, she had started training for marathons. By 2012, she had run eight marathons in one year in addition to several half marathons and a 50-mile run. She was hooked and breaking her own records with each race. Saso felt wonderful physically and emotionally.

But an annual check-up with her doctor told her otherwise.

When Saso was very young, her pediatrician suspected that she might have Marfan syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects the connective tissue. The most serious complications of Marfan are defects of the heart valve and aorta. However, Saso never received a firm diagnosis. When she began seeing a new family practitioner in her late 20s, he too suspected Marfan syndrome and recommended they monitor her heart on a regular basis. A heart echo performed at her 2012 visit revealed an aortic aneurysm—a stretched and bulging section in the wall of the aorta.

“When the aorta becomes stretched, there is a big risk of the aorta dissecting or tearing or, even worse, rupturing and causing death,” says Traci Jurrens, MD, cardiologist at Nebraska Methodist Hospital, who performed the echocardiogram. “Jodi’s aorta had reached the threshold for repair.”

Because of the difficulty of the procedure, most cardiac surgeons replace both the valve and aorta during surgery, which requires lifelong anticoagulation with the blood-thinning drug called Coumadin, explains Dr. Jurrens. Coumadin can have a host of side effects, including easy bruising and bleeding.

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“Since she was so young, we determined that it would be worthwhile for Saso to go to the Mayo Clinic, where cardiac surgeons were able to perform the surgery without removing her own valve,” notes Dr. Jurrens.

Saso’s surgery was scheduled for Jan. 31, 2013. The timing could not have been worse. She had qualified for the Boston Marathon the spring before. The run was scheduled for April 15, just 10 weeks after her surgery. It was a dream she was not willing to let go so easily. “I asked my doctors if there was any way that I could still run the race,” she says. “They were doubtful, but they said it was contingent upon how the surgery and recovery went.”

Following surgery, Saso says she was in so much pain that she thought she would never leave the hospital. “Before I left the hospital, they told me that I had to walk the entire floor six times a day,” she says. “That first day, I could barely walk 10 feet.”

But that’s when Saso’s determination kicked in. “My goal was to run the Boston, and I was going to do everything I could to make that happen.” By day three, she was off pain medications. By day five, she was doing two laps instead of one six times a day and was released from the hospital to go home.

Encouraged by her quick recovery, Saso was on a fast track from then on, she says. By two weeks, Dr. Jurrens had released Saso to return to work. Four weeks after surgery, Saso finished an entire stress test—Dr. Jurrens’ first patient to do that. Jurrens cleared her to run the Boston as long as she promised to run it over four hours.

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Donning a T-shirt that read, “I had open heart surgery 10 weeks ago. Let’s do this!” Saso proudly crossed the finish line in 4:08:15.

“I felt amazing,” she says. Luck continued to be on Saso’s side. Having mistakenly booked her return flight extremely close to the race finish time, she had no time to hang out and celebrate. Instead, she left the race immediately to catch her flight. A short time later, she heard about the 2013 Boston bombings. “Someone was looking over me,” she says.

“Jodi has done remarkably,” says Dr. Jurrens. “It is quite a difficult procedure, but Jodi had excellent results. Because Jodi was in such great shape, she was able to get through surgery very well. In general, great functional capacity prior to surgery predicts better recovery from cardiac surgery. That being said, we really do not know what is safe for Jodi in regard to running, and we do discourage excessive exercise. But running is Jodi’s life, and she is going to make her own decision in regard to running.”

Saso completed five marathons in 2013 but says she is planning to slow down the pace for her own health benefits. “I’m going to do just two marathons a year in the future,” she says. “I want to be smart about this, and I really don’t want to have surgery again.”

The pace may be slower, but her determination to live life as usual is stronger than ever, says Saso. She recites one of her favorite quotes, which she says she applies both to running and life: “The body does not want you to do this. As you run, it tells you to stop, but the mind must be strong. You can always go too far for your body. You must handle the pain with strategy…it is not age. It is not diet. It is the will to succeed. Let’s do this!”

Young Hero: 
Tracy Christensen

December 9, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“I was 16 years old when I had Tracy,” says mom Rene Miller. “I was not only very young, but also going down the wrong path. He is the reason why I turned my life around.”

Around her 26th week of gestation, Rene was hospitalized due to eclampsia, a life-threatening hypertensive disorder of pregnancy. Tracy was removed from the womb in an emergency C-section, only weighing 1lb 7oz and measuring 12 inches long. “The doctors stressed the fact that he wouldn’t survive the first hour,” Rene recalls. But Tracy survived the night. And another. And another. When a week had gone by, the doctors didn’t know what to say, but they knew that his life would be a struggle from that point on.

At 2 mos., Tracy, who weighed about two pounds, underwent surgery for a hernia. Yet again, the doctors didn’t know if he would survive. “I was able to hold him for the first time before he went into the operating room. I prayed for the first time in my life that God would work a miracle for my son.” While Tracy made it through his first surgery, Rene and the doctors had a feeling it wouldn’t be his last.

Next, it was a brain hemorrhage at 3 mos. “[He] received a tube that ran from his head to a jar that drained the fluid building on his brain. The doctors were actually expecting a brain tumor to be found, but instead they just found fluid and a blood clot.”

At around 5 mos., Tracy and Rene were able to go home. “It was right before my 17th birthday,” she remembers. “It was the best present ever.” But then Tracy began vomiting and having difficulty breathing. Even more troubling, he was unable to tolerate Rene’s breast milk, which was helping him gain the very weight and strength he so desperately needed. Back to the hospital they went.

This time, Tracy underwent a fundoplication (a surgery which tightens the esophagus) and received a feeding tube (which fed him and helped him burp for several months after the surgery). And then came the multiple ventriculoperitoneal shunt surgeries to drain the fluid off his brain again.

Shortly after being allowed to go home once more, Tracy was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Rene knew he would be developmentally delayed, but the biggest question in the back of her mind was whether or not her son would ever walk and talk.

Physical, occupational, and speech therapists came to Rene’s home twice a week for a year to work with Tracy, as his weakened immune system made it hard to leave the house. “Tracy proved himself once again though,” Rene adds. “He said ‘Mom’ at 1½ years, and he walked around 3 years with the help of leg braces and a walker. He also potty-trained at 3½ years and started preschool.”

The next decade proved difficult as well, what with Tracy getting meningitis and having seizures because of the damage to his brain. But he kept pushing through, as he had ever since he was a baby.

Today, Tracy Christensen is a 16-year-old student at Blair High School, where Rene says “he blossoms.” He’s involved in the Special Olympics and works at the school office, and he’s also a big brother to an 8-year-old sister, Kaidence, who helps watch out for him.

But it’s Tracy’s smile that helps Rene know her son is truly a hero after everything he’s been through—it “lights up your heart,” she explains.

“Tracy has always inspired me. He saved me,” she says. “He has shown me and given me strength and opened my eyes to the world…He is the most amazing young man, and I don’t just say that because he’s my son.”

Young Hero:
 Leyna Hightshoe

November 16, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

“No ten-year-old girl wants to have to wear a neck brace,” says Carla Podraza, whose daughter, Leyna Hightshoe, 12, was diagnosed with scoliosis at age 10.

Leyna, now a student at Norris Middle School in the Omaha Public Schools district, had an s-shaped spine (called double lateral curve) that made it hard for her to breathe. “When she was diagnosed, it was already severe enough that bracing couldn’t resolve the problem,” Podraza says. “But she was so young to have to undergo such a major surgery.”

Within a year of diagnosis, Leyna’s spine got worse. “The top was measured at 83 degrees while the bottom curve was around 79. A brace is recommended around 20-29 degrees, and surgery is considered to correct curvatures over 45 degrees,” explains Podraza.

But Podraza found an extremely skilled orthopedic surgeon at Shriners Hospital in Minneapolis, Minn., who seemed to be the right fit for Leyna’s case. “He took such care in considering all the details…nothing I told him seemed irrelevant. His staff was available to us all the time, answering questions, lending support.”

Podraza was told that Leyna’s condition needed to be addressed immediately. Unfortunately, other issues kept appearing. For example, the doctors discovered that Leyna also had a bleeding disorder called von Willebrand Disease, which affected her blood’s ability to clot. “That had to be taken into consideration and planned for before the surgery could be scheduled,” adds Podraza. “Because of all the impediments, plus trying to figure out how to pay for a surgery of this magnitude…our nerves were stretched pretty thin,” she says.

Despite everything, Leyna was brave. She decorated her neck brace with rhinestones and puffy paint. She accepted all of the frightening information from her doctors calmly—from the descriptions of how her muscles would be peeled away to expose the spine during surgery to the “and in worst case, death” disclaimers. And she dealt with the incredible pain after her surgery.

“She pushed herself to get through it, and to do whatever the doctors said was necessary,” Podraza says. “For her to sit up within a day of the surgery seemed impossible, and to walk the next day was even more unbelievable.”

Chromium rods attached with two-dozen screws now support Leyna’s spine. Since the surgery, it has corrected her curves to 23 and 16 degrees, respectively. “Her breathing is so much better,” Podraza adds, “and her back is so much straighter than it was.”

Podraza is glad to have her daughter looking and feeling better, but what still amazes her is how Leyna was able to handle everything with grace and courage.

“Everyone has it in them to be strong when they need to be, but sometimes they don’t know that. [Leyna] was able to get past fear, doubt, and self-pity to figure out how to cope with the situation.

“She found it in herself though to find a way to get through each of those moments that were so emotionally tough…It showed me a new side of her—this fiercely strong person—[and] impressed me when I watched her push through the toughest parts, physically and mentally.”

Young Hero: Ashley Dubas

September 24, 2013 by

Ashley Dubas, 12, is a sixth grader at Beadle Middle School. She has a younger sister, Nicole, whom she is very close to, and a dog named Benny, who’s been her pal since she was 1. While Ashley might sound like your average sixth grader, she is anything but. In fact, she’s a brave and compassionate “Young Hero.”

Born with a congenital heart defect, Ashley has already had two open-heart surgeries and gone through countless rehabilitations and procedures that most adults don’t experience until they’re much older.

“During the course of her last surgery,” says mom Sondra, “she experienced a stroke and had to go through intensive rehabilitation to learn to do everything all over again from sitting, talking, and eating to walking, writing, and playing with her friends. She’s been through a lot.” Nevertheless, Sondra has seen her daughter overcome the struggles of her heart defect with a positive attitude.

Because of that, Sondra was inspired to create a nonprofit organization based in Omaha called Heart Heroes, Inc. Together, Sondra and Ashley have worked with other moms of children with heart defects to provide superhero capes to thousands of children in nine countries and nearly every state in the U.S.

“Ashley proudly wears her cape and has been a spokesperson for the organization by appearing on such TV programs, as KMTV’s The Morning Blend and most recently NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams,” adds Sondra.

Throughout all of this, Ashley has become a role model for other children, especially those who are also heart kids. “She shows them that, even though they may have special medical needs and go through hard times, they can overcome their obstacles,” says Sondra. “She is an example of willpower and strength.” That’s why Sondra wrote a book called Miracle of Belief: The Story of a Six-Year-Old Heart Hero, detailing Ashley’s stroke and the family’s healing journey (the proceeds of which benefit Heart Heroes, Inc.).

“Ashley has been through more than I could ever imagine a person having to endure. There have been many times that I wished I could have traded places with her, [but] she has inspired me, as her mother, to use her experience to help others.”

For more information about Heart Heroes, Inc., visit heartheroes.org

Do you have a Young Hero in your life? Tell us their story. They might be featured right here on our Young Hero page! Contact Bailey Hemphill at bailey@omahapublications.com.

Getting Through the Emotional 
and Physical Challenges of Breast Cancer

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Even when it’s over, it’s not over, says one cancer survivor, who recently completed her treatment. The emotional turmoil and lingering fear of what’s going to happen next—Am I really cured? Will it come back?—continue to haunt many breast cancer survivors during and well beyond the treatment process.

The fear was so overwhelming for 39-year-old Melissa Holm that she decided to have a double mastectomy. This was despite her doctor’s assurance that the cancer cells were limited to her right breast and the chance of the cancer spreading to the other breast was very slim.

“I didn’t want to live with that fear for the rest of my life,” says Holm, a mother of two young girls and a boy. “I just wanted them to take everything and start from scratch. I know others who have had a lumpectomy, and they worry before every appointment. My diagnosis came after a year of watching. I didn’t want to continue that waiting game.”

“The number of women choosing double mastectomy over a lumpectomy has doubled from about 3 percent to nearly 6 percent over the last 10 years,” says Margaret Block, M.D., a medical oncologist at Nebraska Cancer Specialists. “We don’t really know why, but a lot of it may stem from the fear and anxiety following a cancer diagnosis.”

The fear and shock of a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, notes Patti Higginbotham, APRN, AOCN, nurse practitioner with the Alegent Creighton Health Breast Health Center. “The first thought of 90 percent of women is that they are going to die.”

Even after getting through the initial shock, women still have to endure another year or more of treatment, which may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and breast reconstructive surgery.

“The number of women choosing double mastectomy over a lumpectomy has doubled from about 3 percent to nearly 6 percent over the last 10 years.” – Margaret Block, M.D., medical oncologist, Nebraska Cancer Specialists

For Holm, dealing with the loss of her breasts and then her hair were two of the biggest emotional challenges during treatment. “You go through a period where you don’t even feel like a woman anymore,” she says.

Then, there was the constant fatigue, malaise, and missing out on her children’s events, like plays, basketball and volleyball games, and school meetings. “I slept a lot on the weekends following chemotherapy,” recalls Holm. “My children barely saw me the entire weekend. Thankfully, my husband was there to take charge of the kids, but still care for me. He was my rock.”

While a cancer diagnosis is never easy, there are several steps women can take to help ease the physical and emotional impact of a breast cancer diagnosis, cancer experts say.

One of the most important of these is the support of family and friends. “Women who try to do it alone usually don’t do as well physically or emotionally,” says Higginbotham. “Part of our makeup as women is that we need to talk about it. If you don’t have someone that you can lean on, we encourage women to seek support through a cancer support group, our social worker, nurse navigators, or other members of our staff. It’s also very important that you have a health care person you can connect with. If you don’t have that partnership, then maybe you have the wrong provider.”

“I couldn’t have made it without the support of family and friends,” notes Holm. “There is strength in numbers. They gave me strength through some of the most difficult times. I had to lean on so many people. I couldn’t have made it without all of their help.”

“Women who are informed and have the facts also do better and make better decisions,” says Block. “Faster is not always better. Once you get the diagnosis, you need to take some time to get through the initial shock and then ask questions and do some research. Otherwise, women tend to make decisions based on emotions rather than facts.”

“…we’ve found that physical activity will help with the emotional [and] the physical side effects.” – Patti Higginbotham, APRN, AOCN, nurse practitioner, Alegent Creighton Health Breast Health Center

“We encourage women to stay engaged throughout the entire process,” adds Higginbotham. “Ask a lot of questions, let us know if you are having side effects, ask what you can do for yourself, and seek support.”

Exercise, sleep, and good nutrition can also help with physical healing. “I remember the days when we suggested to women to take a leave of absence from work and to rest as much as they can,” says Higginbotham. “We’ve done a complete 360 since then. Now, we tell women to keep working if they want and to start exercising after surgery, as we’ve found that physical activity will help with the emotional [and] the physical side effects.”

Depression and anxiety are also “side effects” of breast cancer that should be discussed with your provider. “Women shouldn’t be afraid to seek additional help if they have a significant amount of depression and anxiety,” says Dr. Block.  “Sometimes, an anti-depressant can help a woman get through a really difficult time. While most women experience depression and anxiety following a cancer diagnosis, studies show that depression diminishes after treatment and recovery. Anxiety, however, can sometimes continue to linger.”

Life is getting back to normal for Holm. She completed breast reconstruction in late 2012 and says she is now focusing on turning her experience into a positive one by reaching out to others.

“I have volunteered to be a spokesperson for cancer survivors,” she says. “That regular interaction with other women and encouraging them to get mammograms or talking to women who are in the midst of treatment gives me strength.”

And she hopes to pass on some of that strength to others. “I’ve become a stronger person than I thought I was,” she says. “I have become more confident. I want to give other women hope—to let them know it isn’t easy, but you take one day at a time and count your blessings as you go.”

Hearing Impairment

April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The laughter of little children, family chatter at the dinner table, a favorite song on the radio, or even the breeze rustling through the trees…All of these are sounds that we often take for granted. But for those who are struggling with hearing loss, even these simple occurrences take on new importance and are missed more than ever before.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (asha.org), “Thirty percent of adults 65-74 years old, and 47 percent of adults 75 years old or older have a hearing loss.” While that statistic can seem discouraging, the bright side is that, with today’s treatments and advances in technology, there is no real reason that hearing loss is a permanent condition.

Britt A. Thedinger, M.D., of Ear Specialists of Omaha, says that there are several types of hearing loss, and they are not limited to seniors. Some causes of diminished hearing may be overexposure to noise, the result of illness or disease, such as diabetes, or even fluid in the ear canal.

“Most people just think, ‘Oh, I have hearing loss. I’m going to go down and get a hearing aid.’ Well, some hearing losses I see are corrected by a surgery,” says Dr. Thedinger.

As a certified audiologist with ENT Specialists, Ken Stallons, MS, FAAA, says that there are a variety of treatments for hearing loss, depending on the cause. “There are times when we still put tubes in adult’s ears to correct the problem.” Surgical patches for the eardrum and prosthetic devices to replace broken bones of the middle ear are also options that may best suit the type of hearing loss.

Ken Stallons, MS, FAAA, with ENT Specialists

But often, the cause of hearing loss in seniors is just a natural consequence of aging. “Presbycusis is the medical term for hearing loss as one gets older,” Dr. Thedinger explains. He says that while hearing loss may not be an automatic result of aging, “the majority of people, as they mature and get older, will have some degree of hearing loss. But then again, it’s an aging phenomena and genetics that cause progressive hearing loss…kind of like vision change.”

Trish Morrow, Au.D. of Central Plains Ear, Nose, and Throat, and Audiology Center, adds that while presbycusis occurs naturally, “the severity of it varies from person to person.” It tends to run in families, she has observed.

“There are certain hearing losses that are surgically treatable,” says Dr. Morrow. “But when it’s hearing loss due to aging, that’s not really something that we can treat, other than with hearing aids.” However, people should not be discouraged, as each of the specialists have stressed the great advances that have been made in hearing aids in the last few years.

Not only are hearing aids much smaller and more discreet than in the past, but Stallons adds, “They just sound better…cleaner…in noisy environments and situations.” He goes on to say that in the past year, he has been able to help patients address even the mildest of hearing losses when, in the past, the outcome would not have been as desirable. “[The result] would have been an over-amplification and [the patient] wouldn’t have liked how it sounded. But now [the hearing aids] provide such a clean sound that you can start very early with the products.”

“Improving [your] hearing improves your social outlook, and your psychological well-being. [In addition to] processing sounds, hearing stimulates your brain, keeps it active, and keeps those cells in your brain working.” – Britt Thedinger, M.D., with Ear Specialists of Omaha

Each of the specialists recommends not waiting until there is significant hearing loss to seek help, but to consult your doctor or audiologist as soon as you notice a difference in your hearing. “You’ll do much better with hearing aids if you don’t go a long time without having normal auditory stimulation,” adds Dr. Morrow. “But even if they do wait until it’s severe, they can most definitely be helped.”

Cochlear implants are noted as the “last resort,” says Stallons, “when traditional hearing aids have failed to produce the kind of results we’re trying to achieve, or they are not an option.” The implants, which provide electrical stimulation to the auditory nerve, are placed in the inner ear during an outpatient surgery.

“Actually, the criteria for cochlear implants is becoming much more lenient,” says Dr. Morrow. “It used to be that you practically couldn’t understand anything, even with the best hearing aids on. [Now] people are doing so well with cochlear implants that they’ve loosened up the criteria to become a candidate for one.”

Dr. Morrow adds that the implants are so advanced that they are actually now able to save some residual hearing in patients, whereas in the past, “[patients were] totally reliant on the cochlear implants.”20130311_bs_8707_Web

Dr. Thedinger explains that hearing loss can impact other aspects of a person’s life, such as their overall social and psychological wellness, as well as their health in general. “If you’re not treating your hearing loss, you tend to be more reclusive,” he shares. “So improving [your] hearing improves your social outlook, and your psychological well-being. [In addition to] processing sounds, hearing stimulates your brain, keeps it active, and keeps those cells in your brain working.”

Husband and wife Doug and Pat Durbin of Omaha each have two hearing aids and say that the little devices have changed their lives.

Pat shares a story that is undoubtedly a familiar one among seniors experiencing hearing loss. After repeatedly asking her grandchildren to repeat themselves during conversations, Pat says, “Finally, two of them were brave enough to say, ‘Grandma, we’re not going to repeat it anymore.’” She continues: “I thought it was a nice way to say, ‘Grandma, do something about your hearing.’ So, I did.”

Pat wears a hearing aid that also works as a mini-microphone. With a separate transmitter that can be placed in different locations, the sound becomes clearer. “One of the problems [of traditional hearing aids] is peripheral noise…you can’t zero in on the [speaker].” But her new hearing aid allows her to enjoy dinner conversations with friends, as well as attend large speaking engagements. “I just love it. It’s made a world of difference.”

While Pat’s hearing loss involves diminished clarity, Doug’s is diminished volume. Six years ago, he started wearing a hearing aid. “When [the doctor] did an audiogram, one ear was more deficient than the other, so I only wore one hearing aid. I was reluctant to put both in my ears,” he admits. When his audiologist told him that by only using one aid, he was doing more harm than good, he reconsidered. Eighteen months ago, he started wearing the second aid. “The nice thing is, it turns up the sound just a little bit and then clarifies the language as well. It makes a lot of difference.”

Surviving Heart Disease

January 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As a young woman of just 38 years old, Dionne Whitfield didn’t fit the typical description of a heart disease patient. But there she was, standing in front of the cardiologist, still tired and breathless after undergoing a treadmill test, trying to grasp the news that she had three major blockages.

She didn’t hear much after that. All she could think about was that she didn’t want to become a mere statistic. That she still wanted to have a family and live to see her potential children grow up. What was going to happen to her, she thought.

One week later, in August of 2012, Whitfield was back in the hospital undergoing triple bypass surgery. Today, Whitfield is doing great, and with age on her side, she is determined to take control of her health and her life again.

Looking back, she knows now that her unhealthy lifestyle habits were bound to catch up with her eventually. At 352 pounds, she ate whatever she wanted, often grabbing fast food along the way. She rarely exercised, and she had settled for the fact that she was overweight and nothing was going to change that. She was also African-American, a population that tends to have greater prevalence of risk factors for heart disease than Caucasian women.

“This has been a big eye-opening experience for me, and I don’t want to go back.” – Dionne Whitfield, heart disease patient

Whitfield’s attitude about her weight and health has done an about-face since then. Her attitude actually started to change with several warning signs shortly before the news of her blockages. In early January of last year, she learned that she was borderline diabetic. Concerned, Whitfield began attending group exercise classes and the pounds began to fall off. Motivated by her success, she began to make exercise a priority.

Then came her second warning. In July, she started becoming so short of breath that she could barely make the short walk from her office to the car. When things didn’t get better, she consulted with her doctor, who referred her to cardiologist Edmund Fiksinkski, M.D., at Nebraska Methodist Hospital, who performed the cardiac testing in which the blockages were found.

Whitfield’s surgery was performed by John Batter, M.D., cardiothoracic surgeon at Nebraska Methodist Hospital. After surgery, she underwent six weeks of supervised cardiac rehabilitation. Whitfield exercises on her own now but is still considered in a recovery phase for the next year and follows a moderate exercise program while her arteries heal.

“Dionne has done great,” says Susana Harrington, a nurse practitioner at Nebraska Methodist Hospital, who worked with Dionne throughout her recovery. “She really owned it and became more determined than ever to lead a healthy lifestyle.”

“This has been a big eye-opening experience for me, and I don’t want to go back,” says Whitfield. She continues to work out regularly, watches what she eats, and even reads labels now before putting food in her grocery basket.

She has also lost more than 72 pounds and is determined to double that. “I feel so much better now,” says Whitfield. “I’m not breathless now, and exercising is getting easier.”

 “She really owned it and became more determined than ever to lead a healthy lifestyle.” – Susana Harrington, nurse practitioner at Nebraska Methodist Hospital

What women need to learn from this is that the development of cardiovascular disease is a lifelong process and that prevention is a lifelong effort, says Amy Arouni, M.D., cardiologist at Alegent Creighton Health. Controlling your risk factors very early in life can help prevent the development of heart disease later. This includes quitting smoking if you smoke, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, eating a diet low in saturated fats with lots of fruits and vegetables, and watching your blood pressure and cholesterol. In fact, women can lower their heart disease risk by as much as 82 percent just by leading a healthy lifestyle, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Prevention is important because heart disease is the No. 1 killer of all women, claiming the lives of approximately a half million women each year.

The main difference between men and women is that women are more likely to develop heart disease in their 60s and 70s, about 10 years later in life than men.

That’s because after menopause, risk factors tend to rise in women, especially blood pressure and cholesterol levels and rates of obesity, says Eugenia Raichlin, M.D., cardiologist at The Nebraska Medical Center. Other risk factors such as smoking, diabetes, and family history also raise a woman’s risk.

“The longer you wait, the greater the potential to suffer significant damage to the heart.” – Amy Arouni, M.D., cardiologist at Alegent Creighton Health

The consequences of heart disease also tend to be more severe in women. For instance, “a greater number of women die of sudden cardiac death before their arrival at a hospital (52 percent) compared to 42 percent of men,” says Dr. Raichlin. “Women often require more hospitalizations compared to men, have lower ratings of general well-being, and limitations in their abilities to perform activities of daily living. As a result, heart disease in women presents a unique and difficult challenge for physicians.”

In addition to prevention, women should also be aware of the symptoms of heart disease and the subtle changes in their bodies, says Dr. Arouni. “Unlike men, women’s symptoms tend to be more vague and atypical and may include mild neck, shoulder, upper back, or abdominal discomfort; shortness of breath; nausea or vomiting; sweating; lightheadedness or dizziness; extreme fatigue and/or a jaw ache that travels down the neck,” she says. “Because the symptoms tend to be vague, oftentimes, women will stay at home and ride it out.”

This is one of the key areas where women go wrong. “Getting help quickly is critical,” says Dr. Arouni. “The longer you wait, the greater the potential to suffer significant damage to the heart.”

While the development of heart disease in a woman’s 30s is less common, it does happen, especially when other risk factors are involved such as family history, obesity, or diabetes.

Whitfield feels fortunate that she and her doctors took her symptoms seriously and that she sought help early on. Now, she hopes she can help other women avoid the same fate by taking control of their health at a young age. “I feel very grateful to my family and friends and to the doctors and nurses that helped me get through this,” she says. “When you’re young, you don’t think anything can happen to you, but now I know differently. I don’t take my health for granted anymore.”