Kristen Patton, 41, suffered her first heart attack with no warning on Christmas Eve 2015. She had just brought home her fourth child after giving birth two days prior and the family enjoyed a normal Christmas Eve. She first noticed something was wrong when she was feeding her infant daughter.“I had this horrible pain in my jaw … it felt like it was drilling into my jawbone,” Patton, of Austin, Texas, said. She instantly knew something was wrong and put her child back in the bassinet before calling for her husband.
“He came into the room to find me unresponsive and called 911,” Patton said. By the time paramedics arrived she no longer had a heartbeat and they had to use a defibrillator to get her heart started again.
Once she was at the hospital, the doctors were able to stabilize her heartbeat but they remained mystified to why her heartbeat had been dangerously irregular.
Days later, after multiple tests and no clear answer, they planned to let her leave the hospital with an defibrillator vest that could shock her heart if she had another heart attack. But before they could prep her for that device, Patton had a second heart attack.
“It was the same exact pain and progression,” Patton recalled. “But I felt like I was drowning and I could not get a breath.”
During the second heart attack doctors realized that Patton had a rare heart condition called spontaneous coronary artery dissection. The layered walls in her artery had partially torn, cutting off desperately needed oxygen to portions of the heart muscle, effectively killing the heart tissue.
Dr. Mary Beth Cishek, a cardiologist at Seton Heart Institute in Austin Texas, treated Patton and said the heart was so damaged doctors knew she would need a transplant in the future.
“It was so extensive and damage to her heart was so great … it was no longer able to support her body,” Cishek said.
To save her life doctors performed a triple bypass and attached Patton to a machine that can oxygenate blood called an ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation.)
After the surgery, Patton remained unconscious at the hospital for weeks on life support. She could not be put on the transplant list because her kidneys started to fail and her heart could no longer effectively pump her blood. The ECMO machine and later a similar more portable device called an LVAD (left ventricular assist device) used to pump blood were the only way she could stay alive.
After her diagnosis, Patton’s doctors realized that her pregnancy, with the accompanying rise and fall in hormones, was the likely cause of the rare and dangerous heart condition.
“It’s thought that the shifting hormones in a way may kind of loosen the cell to cell connections,” Cishek explained.
In late January, weeks after arriving in the hospital, Patton finally woke up, but was unable to speak due to a tracheotomy.
“It was a really horrible feeling to not be able to communicate effectively with the people around me,” she said. “I also just felt pretty horrible … I had lost all strength in my arms and legs.”
Slowly she was able to recover to the point that she could get into a rehab facility as she gained her strength. The LVAD meant she had to be connected to a battery 24 hours every day to keep her blood pumping through her body.
Over the course of 2016 Patton continued to get stronger and was even able to return home where she went on a hike with her family and started to get back to her normal life. In November, her doctors were able to put her on the wait list for a heart transplant, giving her hope that a new heart could mean no longer relying on the LVAD to stay alive.
“You walk around with your cellphone in your hand waiting for your call,” Patton said, explaining that every call from an unknown number was exciting. “You think, ‘Is this a telemarketer or a heart?'”
Eventually, on her 41st birthday, Patton got the call that a heart was available.
“I got the call on my birthday, it was really beautiful,” Patton recalled, explaining she was with her husband at the time. “We both just hugged each other and cried.”
Patton successfully underwent the transplant surgery in November, approximately 11 months after her first heart attack. When she woke up, she said she could feel her heart beat for the first time in nearly a year after being put on the ECMO machine.
“It [felt] like horses galloping through my chest because the heart beat was strong,” she said. Now nearly three months after her transplant, she continues to get better and more active with her children.
“I do feel so good now it is hard to fathom that all of this could possibly happen, sometimes it feels like another person’s story,” Patton said.
She is hoping that sharing her story she can raise awareness about the need for people to be proactive about their heart health. While she knows her condition is rare, she also lost her mother to a heart attack last February. The cause was atherosclerosis — a build-up of plaque in the arteries that is a common cause of heart attacks.
“Heart attacks are devastating and my hope is to raise awareness so that people go get their heart screened,” Patton said.
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