Carol Hill knows all too well that no matter how bad your day seems to be going, it can always be worse; the 58-year-old Indianapolis resident points to a day in October 2012 as proof. Despite taking a few days off work and going to the doctor, she returned to work, still not feeling well. She was under a lot of stress as the assistant manager of an apartment complex, and on top of that, the ringing in her ears that had sent her to the doctor, hadn’t let up.
Things went downhill from there. Rather than settling in to catch up after three days off work, Carol found herself back in her car, headed to the unemployment office. She had been let go.
“I decided I might as well get unemployment started,” remembers Carol.
When she finished the paperwork, she headed to the parking lot, and she thought, home.
“I struggled to get to the car,” Carol says. “I wasn’t in pain, but I was out of breath. A woman had to help me get to my car.”
Carol knew the signs—she was having a heart attack. She’d suffered one three years earlier and with the help of three stents, had recovered. Sitting in her car, she called her son and took a nitroglycerin tablet, but by the time her son arrived, she was having chest pains.
He took her to the hospital, where doctors successfully opened the blockage that caused the heart attack with another stent. But this time, Carol says she just couldn’t bounce back the way she had before.
“I wasn’t hurting, but I had no energy,” she says. “I couldn’t walk from my car to the door; I lost my capacity to breathe.”
Looking for options
By January, Carol’s condition had deteriorated drastically and she was admitted to Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital.
“I was really, really sick,” Carol says. “People didn’t think I was going to make it.”
Tests revealed she had cardiomyopathy—an enlarged heart. Carol also learned that “to make it,” she needed a transplant.
Until then, intravenous medication helped her get strong enough to walk the floor of the hospital, but that was no way to live while she waited for a new heart. Fortunately, she had an option that could bridge the gap—a ventricular assist device (VAD). Implanted in the chest and connected to the heart, a VAD takes over the heart’s pumping function. It runs by a small external battery-operated controller connected by a thin cable that passes through the skin on the abdomen.
Although Carol knew the device would allow her to get back to living life outside of the hospital, she was still scared.
“I worried I wouldn’t survive the surgery; I worried I wouldn’t live without it,” she says.
Her confidence in the cardiology team was stronger than her worries, however.
“I appreciate them all,” Carol says. “I knew I was in good hands with the doctors because God gave them the skill to heal.”
The surgery was a turning point and Carol saw that just as things can always get worse, they can also get better. She sailed through her recovery and after six weeks, she began rehabilitation.
“It was wonderful. I went from walking for five minutes a day on the treadmill to 30 minutes, along with doing upper and lower body strength exercises. I came a long way,” Carol says.
Focused on living
Now, a year later, she’s still waiting on a heart, but says her health is excellent, considering she’s on a transplant list. She doesn’t want to jeopardize her position on the transplant list so she’s working hard to stay healthy. A three-times-a-week gym habit and a healthy diet are helping keep her on track.
Carol admits she had a hard time adjusting to the lifestyle that’s part of living with a VAD. “I run by batteries and by plugging into the wall at night,” she says. “I change batteries every four hours, so I don’t go far.”
She credits a group of people who understood what she was going through for helping her focus on enjoying every minute—the Second Chance Heart Club, a support group of VAD users.
“When I went to my first meeting, I saw other people like me; it was very encouraging,” says Carol. “They are positive and uplifting, which gives me strength. It makes a huge difference.”
Although she’s not working, Carol says she’d like to be, at least part-time or volunteering—“I’ve worked all my life. I need something to do.”
Even though the VAD has given Carol what she calls “her second chance at life,” she’s still hopeful the call from her transplant coordinator comes soon.
“Ten years ago I wouldn’t have had this option,” Carol says. The VAD is a blessing because without it, I wouldn’t be here. But I want a chance at living life 100 percent. I’m ready now.”