A Warrior Embraces Her Scar

In 1991, I was born with bicuspid aortic stenosis, a congenital heart defect. Both my parents, Terri and Cliff Nuxoll, expected they were getting a beautiful, healthy baby girl. A couple days later, they were told that their baby had a heart murmur in the aortic valve.

My parents were devastated — what parent wouldn’t be? Through early childhood, I didn’t really know what was wrong with me. I don’t think I even knew I had a heart condition. As a baby I had a heart catheterization, and every six months I saw my cardiologist, three hours away in Spokane, Washington.

As I grew, I tried to play games, from kickball to tetherball to tag. I would also run as required in gym class. Occasionally, I went on archery hikes with my parents. After a while, we all noticed that I was having a hard time catching my breath and keeping up. I didn’t know why this was happening, and I was frustrated.

Then one day when I was 10, my mom and I had a long discussion. I don’t remember many details other than my mom telling me I needed to have surgery. Another detail I remember is her telling me about all the surgical instruments the doctors were going to use. It freaked me out, and I ran to my neighbor’s house bawling my eyes out.

At only 10 years old I had open-heart surgery. They did what was called the Ross procedure. They removed my severely narrowed aortic valve and replaced it with my healthy pulmonary valve. Then, to take the place of my pulmonary valve, I received a human donor valve.

I remember walking into the hospital doors the day of the surgery with sweaty, clammy hands, not sure what was going to happen. The hospital had its distinct smell of disinfectant and fresh-cleaned carpet. The nurses and staff were all very nice and got me to my room and into my gown. Of course, they made me pee in a cup to make sure I wasn’t pregnant. Once they had the IV connected and everything hooked up, a doctor came in to tell us that my surgery had been postponed a little while because of an emergency case that had come in.

The minutes seemed like seconds, hours seemed like minutes and before I knew it, the surgeon came in and said they were ready for me. Chills came over me instantly. All I remember at that point was going into an elevator with my mom and dad, and some nurses pushing my bed. Right before we got off, I thought I heard my dad laughing, but once we all got out of the elevator, I could see he was crying. That was the first time I had ever seen him cry. I didn’t know how to react and turned to my mom and saw her eyes tear up. I asked her what was wrong, and she said everything was okay — of course I didn’t believe her and started crying, too. She told me she loved me, and everything was going to be okay. Then my dad came over and told me he loved me and kissed me on the forehead. The nurse came over and told me she was putting something in my IV to make me sleepy. Five minutes later, my eyelids were getting heavy. I took one last look around and saw the operating room on the other side of the glass. And that was it. Complete darkness.

Six and a half hours later, I woke up. I saw lights and heard beeping on the monitors, tubes coming out in every direction. The room was dark. The only light came from the hall through my open door. My throat was dry, and I said, “Where are you, Mom?” No one answered for a few minutes. Then a nurse came in and told me where I was and what was going on. She gave me a small cup of ice chips and my mom was there immediately.

My mom and dad told me those six and a half hours were the longest hours of their lives. They paced the hallway between the cafeteria and the waiting room. It was too hard seeing patients’ family members come and go in the waiting room, especially after witnessing a couple with a son my age (who was having the same procedure), being told his kidneys were failing. I can’t imagine what was going through their minds — the idea of giving your 10-year-old child to a complete stranger to fix their broken heart!

Today I am 27 years old. I still have the same valve and have had no other surgeries, so I beat the odds on how long the valve would last. I know I will need to have another surgery, probably more than one.

I visit my cardiologist once a year for an echocardiogram and EKG. But I am much more than a heart patient: A couple years ago, I completed the Warrior Dash, a 5K obstacle course. I have experienced love and lost it. I was finally able to donate blood for the first time. I have three tattoos. This year I started a new health care job as a patient care assistant and hope to make something of myself. My condition and my experience as a patient make me want to care for others, especially children. I’m getting married and we hope to have kids soon.

No one knows what the future holds, but I do know I am a very lucky person. When it is time for me to have another surgery, I know I will overcome it like I did the first one. I am a warrior; I am proud of what I have become; I am proud to show off my scar and tell my story. I hope it inspires people to stay positive and keep moving forward in their lives.

Highlighting our readers’ experiences with heart disease from their own perspective. We’re always looking for contributions, so please send us yours. Before submitting, please review our Writer’s Guidelines.

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