The girl who lived

Stephenville woman fought the odds to live despite multiple heart issues in her teens

Heather Jennings with her husband, Jeremy, from her Facebook page.

Special to The Flash
March 6, 2023

Editor’s note: Flash reader Heather Jennings penned this wonderful story about her experiences with heart trouble for her personal social media in February (National Heart Health Month) and when Flash Community Editor, David Swearingen, was asked to read it and share it with readers, we jumped at the chance.

Since February is American Heart Month and it’s almost over (CHD awareness was February 7-14), and I was recently encouraged that I should, I thought I would share my heart health story.

It’s going to be lengthy, so you definitely don’t have to read it, but please at least read the bottom. I know some of you have known me for a long time and probably already know, and some of you haven’t known me that long and may have never heard this story. I’ve never put it on Facebook or social media at all but here it is:

When I was 14, one day while out with my mom, I had horrible pain start in my side, mom took me to the ER and we just knew it was a kidney stone. Which it was, but the ER doctor misdiagnosed and said it wasn’t. I’ll spare you the details on what he said it was, but I walked around with a HUGE kidney stone for weeks that had to be blasted so I could pass it. Come to find out I had a twisted ureter tube and had to have invasive surgery to repair it. Long story made short, I healed and recovered from that and was moving on with life becoming a teenager. I put this in here because that was actually a birth defect I had also, and we later learned if you have one, you’ll likely have more than one.

So the following I would say year/year and a half I thought I was doing good, and everything was behind me. Then what seemed to just suddenly hit me, I started experiencing major shortness of breath, dizziness, almost fainting spells, and all kinds of scary things. I would be sitting in class, and just feel like I couldn’t catch my breath like somebody was holding me underwater. It was football/playoff season and we were performing and I was preparing for my part in Presentation Play, and I didn’t want to miss any of it.

One day mom and I were coming back from an out of town playoff game, and it got to the point I had to have the vent blowing right in my face because I just felt like I couldn’t breathe. Right after that happened I was sitting in class one day and I had to excuse myself to go see Nurse Pope, she gives me one of those brown bags and tells me to slowly breathe and has to call EMTs up to the school. I didn’t go with them right then, but she talked to my parents and told them she agreed that the doctor needs to get me in right away. So they took me straight to the doctor’s office and they start checking different things. The doctor decided they would squeeze me in immediately to see the heart doctor ( I’m thinking wait what? I’m only 16!).

So the heart doctor squeezes me in and decides to run an Echocardiogram of my heart, and BOOM in an instant my young life was changed. I had a hole the size of a quarter (that’s definitely not considered small when you’re talking about a hole in your heart), right in the Atrial Septal basically the middle) of my heart and stuff was lighting up on that screen and going every which way (that’s not what’s supposed to happen).

Now, you can imagine my surprise/shock when they say we’re going to refer you to a surgeon because you’ll need open heart surgery (again… wait, what? I’m only 16!). Fast forward to November, I got to wait until after Thanksgiving (but I was pretty much a hot mess that year), but right after I go in for my open heart surgery. Everything goes pretty well except they didn’t give me a blood transfusion during the surgery because they didn’t think it would be needed, but I ended up running low on platelets and having to get one.

I finally go home and am recovering (so we think), although I was slightly depressed because I can’t just be a normal 16 year old. For a few weeks I seem to be doing pretty good, but around 4 to 5 weeks post-op I again just don’t feel right. I made several trips to the ER within a little over a week or so with all kinds of symptoms only to be told each time that I was fine and that they couldn’t find anything. Which was so frustrating, because I knew something wasn’t right.

On Dec. 30 (I spent Christmas feeling miserable), my Aunt and Uncle were visiting from Arkansas. I was feeling really bad and we couldn’t get a blood pressure reading from the BP cuff at home so my mom said we’ll go to Walmart and check it there (thank goodness for those machines). It read it but my BP was super low, so we get out of the parking lot and I said mom I think I’m going to pass out and sure enough, she pulls into the Jack and the Box parking lot and in between my mom and my aunt I passed out.

They get me up to the ER and I was white as a sheet, just no color whatsoever. The ER doctor runs some tests and asks me what do I want him to do, tells my mom that we’re just being paranoid and that I’m anxious and she needs to downplay my symptoms because she isn’t helping by feeding into it. So he’s signing my discharge papers when (and I know this sounds odd to say), but thank goodness I seized because it finally got his attention. So he said he was going to call Careflight, it takes a while for them to get to me and I asked if my mom could fly with me because I was scared and wanted her to go with me. I vaguely remember the ride to Fort Worth, but we get there and I’m just barely conscious at this point but trying not to go to sleep because I’m afraid I won’t wake up. My dad, my aunt and my uncle are on their way up to Fort Worth at this point.

In the ER at Harris Methodist, they aren’t moving very quickly and they were drawing blood and not really tending to me because they were very busy, but my BP was 50/30 and my lips were purple, my heart rate is over 200 at this point, I WAS DYING. So this is where a nurse comes in and tells them to do anything to get me stimulated and put my bed all the way down (she told my mom her name and she worked in ICU, mom went to find her later to thank her and no one in any ICU knew who she was.) My mom went out and told them they needed to get the doctor because I was dying and they don’t have much time. So they get the doctor in and he takes the echo machine and takes one look and realizes time is critical because my heart is surrounded by and drowning in fluid.

Pericardial Effusion is not something you want to ever hear or experience. So they have to do an emergency procedure in which they stuck a HUGE needle that goes through the sternum several times to pull the fluid off and hopefully at that point my heart and body recover fast enough for me to survive. My mom and dad were told they need to call family because they had done all they could do for me, and at that point, it didn’t look good. My poor brother was devastated when he got the call telling him I might not make it. They pulled almost 1,000 cc’s of fluid off of my heart (most people don’t live past 500 is what they told me), but by the grace of God, I woke up.

I spent another week in the hospital with a direct pic line placed in my heart to get the remaining fluid off, that was definitely a painful procedure. One of those you’ll feel some pressure, yeah they might as well say pain you’ll feel lots of pain. I was alive though, and I was just thankful to be alive. There are a lot of things I left out so this doesn’t get any longer about what happened in between and after, but God gave me a second chance at life. I was also told had they not found the hole when they did, I could’ve been in my 30s doing dishes at the sink and fell over dead or died during childbirth.

***So if you didn’t read it all (I promise I’m not mad if you didn’t), please read this: Always take care of yourself and your heart, and don’t put it off (talking to myself here too). Also, you know your body better than anyone, so when it’s telling you something isn’t right listen to it and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s not always just anxiety or all in your head and you are worth the time and attention needed, so if no one is listening then make them listen. My family has a history of heart disease and heart attacks, and we’ve lost a lot of loved ones to it so it’s so important to get regular checkups.

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