It’s American Heart Month, which is a time for health organizations such as Medical Center Barbour to come together and share helpful information about staying heart healthy and to amplify the voices of people who live with heart conditions every day. With heart disease being the number one killer of Americans and half of the entire population of adults in the country with a heart condition, American Heart Month is the perfect time to come together and get heart healthy. A great place to start becoming heart healthy is to listen to the people around you who wake up every day with a heart condition. Their stories can help us all become a little more heart healthy in our daily lives and help guide us as we take the first steps in our own heart healthy journeys.
In honor of American Heart Month, Medical Center Barbour sat down with Lee Spurlock, who is a long-term employee of Medical Center Barbour and lives daily with a heart condition, to bring you his story and share with you the wisdom he has gained over his years of managing his heart condition so that you, too, can implement his daily heart-healthy habits. Lee starts by explaining his condition and how it led to his eventual open-heart surgery.
“I was born with a congenital birth defect, but I discovered that I had a valve problem at 15 years old after experiencing chest pains when I was playing sports. They said that the chest pains really didn’t have a correlation with the valve problem, but the good Lord must have been looking out for me, because that’s what prompted me to get it all checked out. I went and got a chest X-Ray, and they didn’t find anything; I went to the ER a couple of times and kept digging further, and finally they did an echocardiogram and found it. They said I’d be about 30 years old when I’d have to have surgery to correct it. I was 37 going on 38 when I actually got the surgery. We didn’t know about the aneurysm until a couple of years ago, though. The doctors believe that my valve not sealing and the pressure from the regurgitation was actually what caused the aneurysm. Of course, blood pressure and heart rate play a big factor in it, and so we’ve just been monitoring that for the last few years. This last year has really been a doozy- I could tell my symptoms were getting worse, even though I was hiding it at work. I was feeling short of breath and very fatigued, but even with my heart condition I was working three jobs. Really, Brooke, my now fiancé, was the one who noticed that my condition was worsening when she saw that I couldn’t catch my breath and was huffing and puffing when I was playing soccer with my nephew in the yard one weekend. She scheduled the appointment for me to see my cardiologist, and he told me we needed to do something pretty much immediately.” Lee shares what it felt like going into the surgery. “It was pretty intense. I usually handle stress pretty well- my mom has had a lot of health issues, also- but it’s always different when you’re the actual patient. I went from one extreme to the other: from never being a patient to suddenly being on the other side. Reality set in when the surgeon said, “Alright, let’s set a date.” That’s when it got real. What helped me really follow through with the surgery was when the surgeon laid it out on the table for me and told me that each year I waited, I had an 8% chance of my aorta dissecting, which is a big deal because you can die on the spot if that happens. I asked him what my chance was of dying on the operating table versus waiting, and he told me I had a lot higher chance of success with the surgery. He was so confident, really, that he told me I had a 95% survival rate, even though it is a risky surgery. I will say, if I could recommend anything to other people going through this, I would tell them not to wait and to just go ahead and get the surgery as soon as you can.”
Lee goes onto explain exactly what his surgeons did to help fix his aneurysm.
“The surgery itself was about five or six hours. I actually still have my original valve- not a pig’s valve, cow’s valve, and no mechanical valve- it’s the same one I was born with, but he folded my leaflets and stitched it, so it seals into place now, and I hardly have any regurgitation at all. It should last for the rest of my life. Now, here’s the weird part- they took out a section of my aorta and grafted in a mesh piece for me. They just cut the aneurysm out and grafted in a new piece. There was also a fissure in my coronary artery that they fixed as well.”
Lee goes on to explain what it was like coming out of surgery.
“I will say, now I understand what patients mean when they are in that “twilight zone” because that’s how I felt coming out of the surgery. I heard Brooke talking, and started moving around, but she had to stop me because I was still intubated. Once Brooke and the nursing staff calmed me down and Brooke explained that they had me intubated to keep an eye on my vitals, I was okay. When I finally got extubated, the pain medications had to run their course out of my system, which was not a fun process after that major surgery. The next six hours, we played catch-up. It was the worst part of the whole process. The next morning, the doctor told me I looked too good to stay in the critical care unit and moved me to the floor. Within 18 or 19 hours after surgery, they had me up and walking.”
Lee shares what the recovery process to his open-heart surgery was like.
“I was back at work, walking down the hall like nothing ever happen, after 3 months. It was a fast recovery. I tried to come back even before that time, but I had some xiphoid pain that caused me to stay out the full time that they recommended. But the recovery process itself was harder on me than the actual surgery. I’m the type of guy who’s very active- I was working three jobs, being Mr. Energetic- and I went from that to having to have someone pour me something to drink. I couldn’t even pick the gallon of orange juice up out of the fridge because it weighed too much. Stuff like that- it’s very humbling. It was definitely the most humbling experience I’ve ever been through. You’re just so dependent on other people to help you- get to the bathroom, get something to drink, get something to eat-that it’s hard. Brooke and Dad helped me immensely. They would pour drinks for me in cups before they left so I didn’t have to struggle with that. They had a great system worked out. My dad practically lived with us to help me out. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Lee goes on to talk about his new lifestyle changes after heart surgery. “Now I am trying to make a lifestyle change. I used to be the guy that loved some Willy T’s fried chicken fingers, but now when I eat out at places like that, I opt for the grilled tenders. Brooke is always cooking us healthy meals at home with lots of veggies. I mean, I have moments like everyone else where I don’t eat perfectly, but most days I do eat healthy foods. With me working three jobs, I used to eat bad all the time, but now it’s just occasionally. I have cut back my caffeine consumption a lot- I drink coffee that’s half-caffeinated in the morning, and drink decaf tea throughout the day. Brooke lets me drink two caffeinated teas during the day, so I try to enjoy that, but she’s really been helping me to stick to drinking less caffeine because we have found that it affects me more now that my heart is so efficient. I also have been exercising a lot more lately. I have found that exercise is fun now. Before I got back to work, I was walking ten to twelve miles a week. I have a neighbor that calls me up and we go walking together. I haven’t been walking quite as much since I got back to work, because I want to pace myself, but before I came back, we’d do about two to three miles a day together. When I first started walking, I had to use a cardiac pillow pressed to my chest to walk, but I did it.”
Lee reflects on how he hopes his story inspires others. “You know, going through all this, I hope that my story inspires my patients to get their surgeries. I want them to know that they can do this. I was very nervous the day of the surgery, up until the very moment of the surgery, and Brooke had some Scriptures that we kept reading together that brought me a lot of peace. We read over those and had some long discussions, and I finally just turned it over to God. I told Brooke that no matter the outcome, I am good. I never understood what people meant about that peace you have in times like that until that moment. I always tell patients that they can always ask me questions. Nothing is too personal- I’m not embarrassed to share anything with them. I want to be that person that they can relate to when they are facing their own journey with surgery.” Lee adds some great advice to anyone facing cardiac surgery. “For patients going for any kind of surgery, but especially heart surgery: Be detail oriented. Brooke and I carried a notebook with us with prewritten questions that we had before every appointment because it’s so easy to forget something when you’re in front of the doctor. Ask what to expect during recovery, what situations to be prepared for, and be sure to get the 24/7 number to call when you need to ask questions of the doctor post-op. But most importantly, listen to your body and don’t ignore any signs or symptoms you are feeling. If your body is saying it’s time to get the surgery, it’s time. And after surgery, you’re going to realize that this isn’t just the end- you’re going to have a whole lifestyle change to stay healthy. You don’t want to turn around ten years down the road and have to get surgery again for plaque or cardiac disease. I tell my patients all the time to live and fight to tell your story, and that starts with making healthy choices.”