Heart to Heart: A Grandma’s Journey Back to Health to Care for Sick Grandson

By Meredith Whittemore 

For the last year and a half, Pamela Dillard has been focused on one thing: taking care of her grandson, who was born with a serious heart defect.

“When Foster was born, we knew he’d need several surgeries, but some of them would have to wait until he got a little bigger. There was no way we could risk him getting sick at daycare, so I didn’t think twice about it. I retired so that I could stay with him,” Dillard said.

But when Dillard’s annual physical showed a problem with her own heart, she had to focus on getting herself better so that she could continue to take care of Foster.

Her Symptoms Signaled More Than Getting Older

“I kept getting short of breath, but I attributed it to getting older and taking care of the baby. I knew I had a heart murmur, but when I went in for my annual checkup, my primary care physician said it sounded louder than the year prior and he wanted to do additional testing,” Dillard said.

An echocardiogram showed Dillard had severe aortic stenosis, a narrowing of the aortic valve opening that prevents proper blood flow to the heart. Dillard was referred to William Ross Brown, MD, a cardiologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center.

“Aortic stenosis is a condition that often comes with aging. Calcifications build up on the valve over time, narrowing the valve,” Dr. Brown said. “For some patients, additional or more frequent monitoring may be all that’s needed until the problem worsens.”

But Dillard’s case was severe.

Aortic Stenosis Can Be Deadly

“Pamela was at a high risk of death in the next year. While I knew she worried about having to take a break from taking care of her grandson, it was critical that she have the aortic valve replaced quickly,” Dr. Brown said.

Cardiothoracic surgeon Michael Macris, MD, replaced Dillard’s aortic valve with a biological tissue valve, which closely resembles the normal anatomy and does not require long-term blood thinners after surgery.

“When the valve opening is less than one centimeter squared, or about the size of a pinkie fingertip, replacement is recommended,” Dr. Macris said.

Dillard’s valve opening was just half that size.

“Pamela’s heart was working double overtime to push the blood through that tiny of an opening,” Dr. Macris said. “Long-term strain on the heart like that could lead to even more severe issues, which is why it was so important to have the surgery done quickly.”

Learn More: Aortic Stenosis Treatment Options

Staying Focused on Her Goals Was Key to Dillard’s Recovery

Dr. Macris told Dillard to have a goal in mind that would help motivate her to get up and move during her recovery.

“That wasn’t hard for me,” Dillard said. “I had two big things in mind. First, my daughter and I attend the Nutcracker Market every year and I wanted to be well enough to continue our holiday tradition. Second, my grandson would be having another surgery up in Boston, and I knew I needed to be well enough to go with them and help take care of his sibling while he was in the hospital.”

Dillard was well enough to complete both her goals.

“I gave myself a week on the couch, and from there I would push myself each day to get up and start walking around. In the end, I was able to spend seven hours at the Nutcracker Market with my daughter and I traveled with her family to Boston.  I feel great,” Dillard said.

Proof that Annual Physicals Can Catch Heart Issues Early

Dillard hopes people will hear her story and make sure to get an annual physical.

“If I hadn’t had my physical and my primary care physician hadn’t insisted on getting the additional tests done, I don’t know what would have happened,” she said. “I really believe he saved my life. I probably would have kept ignoring the shortness of breath, and I could have fainted while carrying the baby or driving around. It could have been disastrous.”

Dr. Brown said annual physicals are important part to catch heart issues early.

“Annual physicals help provide baseline results for physicians so they can detect when an issue begins to form,” Dr. Brown said. “From there, they can recommend seeing a specialist, like a cardiologist, to more closely monitor everything from high blood pressure, to heart murmurs, to irregular heartbeats. Our goal is to catch issues early and prevent them from worsening, or to offer surgical options in a timely manner so that people don’t face more serious issues like a heart attack or stroke.”

Learn more about the conditions treated by our multidisciplinary cardiovascular teams at Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute, or schedule an appointment with a cardiologist near you.

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