By Hannah Pietsch
In 1991, Michelle Hanna was a busy young mom. Her husband owned his own business, and Hanna managed their retail store while caring for two young sons until a June evening changed the course of her life.
“I was going to a friend’s house when a drunk driver hit me from behind,” Hanna said. “I was flown via Memorial Hermann Life Flight® to what was then Hermann Hospital in the Texas Medical Center. When I woke up in the ICU, Dr. Red Duke was there taking care of me.”
Hanna had massive internal bleeding, but no major injuries. Her car was totaled. She spent the next six months recovering – and reflecting.
“I was fascinated by Dr. Duke and the residents as they worked in the ICU,” Hanna said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I would love to work in health care, but I have no idea what I would do.’ I just knew that I could have died in that accident, and now I had a chance to do something to help others.”
Hanna sought the guidance of a junior college counselor who explained the various fields within health care and their education requirements.
“I felt the lab calling my name, so I started working on a bachelor’s degree in Laboratory Medical Technology,” she said. “It took me six years to complete my degree, and one of my favorite memories of that time is of my boys and I doing our homework together. I was so excited to start working in a hospital lab and become part of a healthcare team.”
Four years after starting her healthcare career, Hanna’s physician found a lump in her right breast during a well-woman exam. Hanna was 38 – two years younger than the recommended age for beginning mammograms – and had no family history or risk factors for breast cancer.
“After he showed me the lump, it seemed so obvious to me and I kept wondering, ‘How did I miss it?’” she said. “I had not been doing my monthly self-breast exams, but could now feel the lump when my arm would just brush by it.”
Hanna was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy soon after the lump was discovered. Her surgery was followed by intense chemotherapy, including the infamous “Red Devil” or Adriamycin. She received her treatments in Webster, Texas, at a clinic not associated with Memorial Hermann.
“That was a rough time,” she recalled. “I also received Cytotoxin, which caused excruciating head and sinus pain until we extended the drip time to make it more tolerable. My treatments were on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I remember that those days were just shot because I always felt so sick and tired after my treatments.”
Hanna’s husband still owned and operated his own business and wasn’t able to take her to many of her appointments, so their oldest son stepped up to help.
“He was about to turn 16, so we were able to get him an early driver’s license so that he could drive me to and from appointments,” she said. “My in-laws helped too. And I continued to work twice a week on Mondays and Fridays. My coworkers supported me just as much as my family did during this difficult time, so I wanted to continue working as much as possible.”
As Hanna entered remission, she was grateful that she chose to have a double mastectomy. While she approached every check-up appointment with some fear, she felt that she worried less about having a reoccurrence and was able to move forward with her life and career. In 2008, she was supervising both the evening and night shifts of an inpatient lab when she began having trouble catching her breath.
“I couldn’t walk up the stairs like I used to, and I just knew something wasn’t right,” Hanna said. “An EKG showed concerning results. More testing led to a diagnosis of dilated cardiomyopathy, a form of congestive heart failure.”
In the years following her chemotherapy treatments, research emerged linking the “Red Devil” to the development of congestive heart failure in patients who received the chemotherapy drug. Hanna’s cardiologist believed that was the source of her heart condition since her EKGs prior to chemotherapy were normal.
“With medications, I was able to work through the symptoms for many years,” she said. “But in 2015, I started feeling much worse and struggled to make it through an eight-hour day. I found myself working in my office more than I worked in the lab. That’s when the decision was made to implant a cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) to provide my heart with normal heart rhythms and prevent sudden cardiac arrest.”
The cardiologist also said that lower body weight helps reduces stress on the heart and encouraged Hanna to lose weight.
“I was overweight, obese according to weight charts,” Hanna said. “I had been in the same weight range since I was 27, but I simply could not lose weight despite eating healthy and exercising. You can only exercise so hard when you are constantly trying to catch your breath, but I did the best I could.”
The ICD helped Hanna’s heart get stronger. After months of discussions with her cardiologist and weight management physicians, she underwent gastric bypass surgery in 2016. In the year following the surgery, Hanna lost 95 pounds and has successfully maintained her new weight.
“I’m happy to report that my heart is much better,” Hanna said. “And I’m so thankful that my experience with Life Flight and Dr. Duke put me on a path for a career in health care. The medical knowledge I’ve gained over the years has helped me understand everything I was experiencing and what to expect during my many hospitalizations and surgeries over the years. It has given me a sense of peace and strength throughout this entire journey.”
In 2017, Hanna moved to the north side of Houston and joined the team at Memorial Hermann Cypress Hospital as the manager of the inpatient lab there. Today, Hanna says she and her family know the importance of managing and prioritizing their health.
“Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I was 100 percent focused on my family and my work and wasn’t worried about myself at all,” she said. “But now my primary care physician is my lifeline. I never miss an appointment. And when she tells me to schedule a screening or take a needed medication, I do it. I do not leave anything related to my health to chance now, and neither does my family. We learned together how to take care of ourselves and each other.”
For anyone currently trying to lose weight, preparing for a mammogram or facing a significant health concern, Hanna has one piece of advice: “Never give up! Stay positive throughout life’s challenges and share the lessons you learn with others.”