Story of a Survivor

by Zinta Aistars

When Ashley Heitzman, 19, felt light-headed in her dormitory shower at Aquinas College, she nearly fainted. She called out to her roommates for help, and they assisted her to the couch. Heitzman’s friends called campus safety patrol to be safe. They told Heitzman to drink some water, as she was no doubt dehydrated on that warm day.

Although it was probably nothing, Heitzman made a call the next day to the campus doctor to check on what had caused her nearly fainting the day before. A certified physician assistant was on call that day at the Aquinas health center. She did an examination on the sophomore and detected a heart murmur.

“I was confused,” recalled Heitzman. “How could there be something wrong with my heart? I felt fine!”

When Heitzman underwent an electrocardiogram (EKG) and later at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital, however, she was diagnosed with atrial septal defect, a congenital heart defect commonly known as a hole in the heart. An opening in the dividing wall between the upper filling chambers of the heart, or atria, had caused Heitzman’s weakness.

“At 33 millimeters, the doctors told me it was among the largest such holes that they’d ever seen,” said Heitzman.

Dr. Joseph Vettukattil, an interventional cardiologist, and Dr. Marcus Haw, a congenital heart surgeon, immediately scheduled Heitzman for surgery at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. The first surgery didn’t go as well as hoped, as the hole in Heitzman’s heart proved too large to close without open-heart surgery. A week after her first surgery, Heitzman was back in the operating room.

“Dr. Vettukattil was so nice,” said Heitzman. “He held my hand and asked me not to be cross with him that they had to do another surgery. The tissue around the hole had been too weak for him to close it on the first try.”

Heitzman chose to have her open heart surgery done through the side rather than opening her rib cage.

“They went in through my right side so there would be no scar on my chest,” Heitzman smiled. “I understood it would take longer to heal this way because they would have to go through nerves and muscles, but it sounded less scary to me.”

Her youth was to her benefit, however, as the surgery was a success and Heitzman healed more quickly than expected. In cardiac rehab sessions, she was the center of attention among more senior patients.

“I’ve learned so much about heart health from everyone that now I am much more aware of my health,” she said. “I hadn’t realized how much more energy I can have. I realize what a blessing this was — I was told I could have had heart failure by age 40, or my heart could have stopped during labor later in life.”

Heitzman counts her blessings, too, as she prepares for a physician-approved study abroad experience in Costa Rica as part of her college education in the spring.

“I’m so lucky! This could have happened in Costa Rica, at high altitude, far from home. My doctors tell me that once I am fully recovered, I will be an entirely new and better person,” Heitzman said.

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