Issue 3 Stories
Feature

Treating a ‘Silent Killer’

Local Woman Shares Her Journey With Heart Surgery

Linda Varner will enthusiastically tell anyone she meets that she has nothing but good things to say about Sentara RMH—its Emergency Department, its Heart and Vascular Center, its cardiothoracic surgery and cardiac rehab programs, and its doctors and nurses.

The 68-year-old Harrisonburg resident has been active all her life. She also has enjoyed reasonably good health, she says, except for the cancer surgery she had seven years ago, and the onset of cardiovascular symptoms two years ago, which she largely ignored at first—and did not associate with any potential heart problems.

Varner saw her family doctor regularly, and her physicals had never revealed any incidence of high cholesterol, high blood pressure or anything else to cause concern about her heart. So it came as “a complete shock,” she says, when she learned in May 2015 that she needed open heart surgery to avoid a serious, life-threatening heart attack—or, as she puts it, “the silent killer” that was developing inside her.

Varner refers to the condition that way because her symptoms—like those of many women with cardiovascular issues—were subtle and developed gradually. They were not the kind of symptoms, at least initially, so often associated with heart disease. For instance, she experienced no chest pain at all leading up to her diagnosis.

She describes her experience of being diagnosed with life-threatening heart disease and having life-saving heart surgery as her “journey with Sentara.”

The Onset of Symptoms

Varner works as a housekeeper for James Madison University, where she keeps active helping to clean the sizable Festival Conference Center. In late spring 2014, she began noticing a slight shortness of breath, particularly when she exerted herself. At first she didn’t pay much attention to her symptoms, but her condition lingered, and in December 2014 her co-workers finally persuaded her to go see a lung doctor. Several pulmonary tests indicated that Varner had inflammation in the airways of her lungs.

“I was put on some inhalers, and they did help me some,” Varner says. “But the condition continued throughout the winter, and in February 2015 I began experiencing fatigue, both mentally and physically.”

Throughout March and April, Varner’s symptoms worsened. Her condition, which she still attributed to breathing difficulties, was one of profound fatigue. It got so bad, in fact, that she would have to stop and rest periodically to perform tasks at work that had been routine just several months earlier. “I would be so tired that I would be in bed most evenings by 6 or 6:30,” she says.

It never occurred to Varner or her husband, Rick, that she might have heart disease. “I thought it was only the inflammation in my lungs,” she recalls.

“Linda’s father had asthma,” adds Rick, “so we both thought it was just a breathing problem.”

Then, on April 30, Varner’s condition took a turn for the worse.

“I had prepared our dinner, and around 6:30 I began feeling a little nauseous—a sensation I hadn’t experienced in ages,” Varner says. “Then, all of a sudden, around 8, I started feeling this jumping sensation in my chest. And I remember thinking, ‘What in the world?’ I had never had that before.”

It still didn’t occur to Varner that she could have a serious heart condition.

“I should have gone to the emergency room right then,” she says, “but in all my years of going regularly to see my doctor, I had never had any blood pressure problems or cholesterol concerns. I endured the jumping in my chest all through that night, and it was scary.”

Getting a Diagnosis of Heart Disease

Linda’s symptoms persisted, so the following morning, May 1, she had Rick take her to the Emergency Department (ED) at Sentara RMH. Her ED physician was “really concerned,” Varner recalls, by her elevated blood pressure, so the physician contacted the on-call cardiologist, John Walsh, MD. After ordering several tests, including a heart catheterization, Dr. Walsh determined that Varner had major blockages in two coronary arteries.

Varner’s heart disease was so severe, in fact, that her doctors admitted her to the hospital right then. Her cardiologist also called in Jerome McDonald, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Sentara RMH, to evaluate Varner’s condition.

Dr. McDonald determined that Varner needed open heart surgery to treat her obstructions. “Due to the complete blockage of one vessel and severe blockage of the other vessel near a major branch, surgery was the safest option and had a higher likelihood of good long-term results,” Dr. McDonald says.

After remaining in the hospital several days under constant monitoring, Varner underwent heart surgery, during which Dr. McDonald created bypasses around both blockages and restored full blood flow to her heart. The procedure went well, and, according to Varner, her postsurgical care was exceptional. She was in the hospital for a total of eight days.

“I thank the Lord for taking care of me—I learned later there were people in seven states praying for me during the surgery—and I have nothing but praise for my ED doctor, as well as Dr. Walsh, Dr. McDonald and all the people who took care of me at Sentara RMH,” Varner says. “Even the housekeepers, when they found out I was also a housekeeper, would stop in and check on me. Everyone treated me like royalty. In fact, when it came time for me to leave, I told them I didn’t want to go home!”

Another Heart Issue Surfaces

When Varner returned home to recuperate, Rick took care of her and the household. “He was my guardian angel throughout the whole ordeal,” she says.

After several weeks, she entered cardiac rehab at the Sentara RMH Heart and Vascular Center, where heart patients rebuild their strength through a program of monitored exercise, while also receiving education on diet, stress reduction and other heart-related topics. During this time, Varner worked closely with Mim Yoder, BSN, RN-BC, whom she calls “an absolutely precious person.”

On July 8, nine weeks after her surgery, Varner was being monitored while exercising on the treadmill during a regular rehab session. Suddenly, her heart went into atrial fibrillation, or AFib, an irregular heartbeat that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other cardiac problems. As soon as the cardiac monitor picked up the irregular rhythm, the rehab staff went into action.

“Mim and the other rehab staff members quickly put me in a wheelchair and immediately took me to the ED,” Varner remembers.

Her physicians initially tried to control the AFib with medications, but in mid-August Varner was readmitted to the hospital, and Sentara RMH electrophysiologist Robert VerNooy, MD, implanted a pacemaker in Varner’s chest to help regulate her heart rhythm.

“AFib is seen after heart surgery in up to 30-40 percent of cases, and it typically goes away within three months as the heart heals after surgery,” notes Dr. VerNooy. “Linda’s AFib was not life-threatening, but her problem was more complex because we needed to address both the slow and fast rhythms she experienced. She was also started on blood thinner medication to lower her risk of stroke from AFib.”

Again, according to Varner, everything with her implant procedure and hospital stay went smoothly.

Life After Heart Surgery

It’s been more than a year since Varner had her heart surgery and pacemaker implantation, and today she continues to do well. She still uses inhalers, but the shortness of breath is gone, and her strength has returned. Although she says their diet was not terrible before her heart surgery, she and Rick are paying even more attention now to eating heart-healthy foods, including greater amounts of vegetables, poultry, avocados and nuts. And, she says, she has cut way back on salt consumption.

Varner’s job as a housekeeper continues to keep her plenty busy, but she is also trying to increase her activity level by adding in heart-healthy exercises like walking.

She readily thanks God for intervening to save her life. And she has many words of thanks, too, for the staff at Sentara RMH Medical Center. “Your wonderful doctors who treated me, your skilled and compassionate nurses who cared for me—I’m so grateful for them all,” she says.

Today Varner is a vocal advocate to her family, friends, co-workers and others about the importance of not ignoring symptoms that may signal a developing health problem.

So, what does she want readers to take away from her story?

“Please, please pay attention to your symptoms,” she says, “and if you notice anything that concerns you or is different, get it checked out.”

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