My name is Darlene, I am 61 years old and a survivor of two open-heart surgeries.
A faint sound like a seagull cry from my heart set off a small alarm in my gynecologist. In 1986 at the age of 25, during a routine checkup following the birth of my first son, that sound would change my life.
I was referred to a cardiologist in my hometown of Kingston, Ontario, and was diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse with mild regurgitation. There was no clear answer why I developed this condition. As a precautionary measure I began yearly echocardiograms and checkups with my specialist as well as taking antibiotics prior to certain dental treatments and hygiene to keep my body infection free.
Over the next 14 years I developed an arrhythmia and the leaky valve got only slightly worse during those years. In March 2000, I came down with what I thought was a bad chest cold. I saw my family physician in June who thought it was a virus.
During that summer I struggled with exhaustion, lightheadedness, a cough, and shortness of breath - I felt like I was drowning.
A simple ride on my bike was no longer possible. Each day I dragged myself to my job as a dental office manager. September came, and once again I went back to my family physician where he told me he still thought it was a virus.
After a regular visit to my cardiologist and tests on my heart in November, my specialist confirmed that my valve had deteriorated rapidly, and I was now facing open heart surgery. We were both completely shocked that I needed a total valve replacement. I chose a tissue valve rather than a mechanical valve to avoid blood thinners. The surgery was scheduled for April 3, 2001, just a month prior to my 40th birthday.
Waking up after five hours of surgery was a gift, but nothing could have prepared me for the next step. My sternum was fragile, just getting up from a lying position proved difficult. The beeps of a heart monitor, seeing the wires and tubes and the large incision now running down the middle of my chest was terrifying. But soon, each day became easier.
In August 2008, at age 47, I recognized the symptoms which lead to my second valve replacement, this time a mechanical valve. Although it is your heart that is undergoing the surgery your entire body goes through so much. I needed time to recover and regain my strength as I was moving to Ottawa in six weeks for a new job position.
Volunteering with heart patients over the years in both Kingston and Ottawa has been beyond rewarding. It not only gives me a sense of purpose but teaches me valuable skills for making positive changes for myself and shows other survivors they can move forward with their lives.
I am forever grateful for the life I was able to get back. My scar, a signature of strength.