A hole in her heart
Congenital heart disease survivor Miriam Giardini
In early 2010, Mariam Giardini was a vivacious 32-year-old. She ate healthy and worked hard to stay in shape, doing fitness boot camps and other aerobic activities. Heart disease was the furthest thing from her mind.
Then one day she went running with her fiancé, Christian. After only about a half mile, she was short of breath and her face turned beet red. She felt nauseated. She thought her symptoms were the result of getting older, so she switched to light cardio.
But other strange things were happening, too. For instance, she could feel her heartbeat through her ribs on the left side, and "my heart rate seemed fast, even when I was resting," she said.
At a party near the end of summer, Mariam began to feel sick to her stomach. As she made her way to the restroom, she passed out.
After learning that Christian was able to revive her with a glass of orange juice, she thought low-blood sugar could be to blame. (Diabetes runs in Mariam’s family.) She planned to see a doctor, but got busy with wedding preparation and the opening of Salon Jia Li & Spa, her hair and nail salon.
Then at the end of October, she fainted again while in the car; luckily Christian, now her husband, was driving. When she didn’t respond immediately when he tried to revive her, he called the paramedics, who couldn’t detect a cause and urged Mariam to see her doctor.
Mariam’s primary care doctor referred her to a cardiologist. After an EKG showed an irregular heartbeat, her doctor wanted to do a stress test but decided to do an ultrasound first.
That spur-of-the-moment decision proved to be a lifesaver.
The ultrasound showed Mariam had a silver-dollar-size hole between her heart’s upper chambers (atria). Called an atrial septal defect, that hole let blood flow between the atria rather than to the ventricles (the heart’s lower chambers) to be pumped through her body. That hole was so big that if she’d had the stress test first, she could have had heart failure.
The congenital defect put pressure on Mariam’s left ventricle, causing it to leak blood and balloon. In fact, Mariam’s heart was three times bigger than normal and extended to the bottom of her ribcage.
"They told me it was a miracle I was leading an active life, since only about 50 percent of my blood was circulating through my body," Mariam said. "I was close to heart failure."
Several years earlier, X-rays after a bad car accident had shown that Mariam’s heart was enlarged. However, the examining doctor said it was nothing to worry about, and she hadn’t had it checked again.
The news that she’d need open-heart surgery came as a shock. "You think of open-heart surgery as something for people who are older or have high blood pressure," she said, "not someone who is 32."
Mariam’s medical team patched the hole between her atria and repaired the leaking ventricle.
Mariam, now 36, can exercise comfortably and without limitations. She’s had two more children. Her kids and the salon keep her busy.
"Don’t think it can’t happen to you," Mariam advises. "I was 32, not 62."