Suzanne Spivey could have written off her cardiac symptoms as stress. She didn’t, and it saved her life.

Following her sister’s death, Spivey discovered a severe heart condition of her own. During American Heart Month, she and her cardiologist are empowering those who do not feel “right” to speak up.

In the wake of her sister’s death, Suzanne Spivey discovered a severe heart condition of her own....
In the wake of her sister’s death, Suzanne Spivey discovered a severe heart condition of her own. As both a clinician and a patient, Spivey joins her cardiologist, Phoebe Ashley, M.D., during American Heart Month to empower all people who do not feel “right” to speak up (Kevin Morley, University Marketing).

Suzanne Spivey is a typical busy working mom. A 56-year-old mother of four, Spivey holds close ties to her family, has maintained a steady workout routine for most of her life, and works full time at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU as a program coordinator for physical medicine and rehabilitation.

But in April 2019, Spivey was struck with the news that her older sister had unexpectedly passed away. She was in shock and grieving, and in the subsequent days, she felt a horrible, fatigued feeling throughout her body. “I was dizzy, I was short of breath,” Spivey said. “I wasn’t able to lay down because I’d have trouble breathing. I was starting to just push through the days.”

Spivey had no idea what was going on, but knew it had to be something worse than the stress of grief. She had changed from a woman who had gone to Zumba class two weeks prior to no longer raising her arms above her head without feeling faint. “It was just how horrible I felt,” Spivey said. “I told myself, don’t ignore this because you’re upset  it could be something else.”

In fact, what Spivey was experiencing were the symptoms of severe aortic stenosis, a potentially fatal condition in which the valve transmitting blood from the heart to the main artery of her body had narrowed, decreasing the ability of her blood to flow from her heart to the rest of her body. Spivey and her family have a history of heart conditions — including a valve abnormality she has monitored since she was 18 and knew she’d have to address eventually — but as an otherwise healthy woman, she did not expect to get this daunting diagnosis.

On May 2, Spivey met with VCU Health Pauley Heart Center cardiologist Phoebe Ashley, M.D., who sat with her for nearly two hours, comforting Spivey as she informed her of her full diagnosis — severe aortic stenosis due to a congenital aortic valve with two cusps instead of three, and an aortic aneurysm due to a weak artery wall

Woman in hospital bed.
Spivey, just after surgery, with a Superwoman award and a furry companion (Photo courtesy of Suzanne Spivey).

Ashley prepared Spivey for what was ahead, walking her through each of the necessary tests before an ultimate open-heart procedure. On May 21, Spivey underwent surgery led by Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D., chair of the Department of Surgery at VCU Medical Center, and a VCU Health surgical team. Kasirajan and the team removed Spivey’s heavily calcified aortic valve, replaced it with an artificial prosthetic valve, and took several measures to strengthen the artery.

Three days later — and only two months after her original diagnosis — Spivey went home to her family with a repaired heart.

“Her quick post-operative recovery speaks to her level of fitness heading to the operating room. Often, post-operative cardiac patients spend a week or longer in recovery,” Ashley said, emphasizing how healthy living can aid in preventing, mitigating and recovery from heart diseases.

Spivey, however, also credits her instinct and the high-level, compassionate care she received at VCU Health. “Dr. Kasirajan and Dr. Ashley saved my life and I can’t thank them enough,” Spivey said. “I had an amazing team. My doctors, the nurses, the X-ray techs, those in transportation, my cardiac rehab facilitators — everyone is just incredible here.”

How you can protect your own health

Through it all, Spivey considers herself mentally and physically stronger, and smarter about her heart health. As we round out American Heart Month — a time to raise awareness about the impact of heart disease — Spivey and Ashley offer tips for everyone to protect themselves and live each day to the fullest.

Don’t be afraid to be wrong.

Spivey trusted her instinct, which ultimately brought her back to VCU Health and saved her life. She advises everyone to know their bodies and trust themselves if something feels different. 

Ashley notes that heart attack symptoms include reduced exercise capacity; chest heaviness, pressure or tightness; shortness of breath; feeling lightheaded or dizzy; and nausea. “If you’re slowing down a little bit or getting more tired than you typically do with your usual activities, it may not be your heart, but it warrants some investigation.”

Know your family history.

Family history may increaseyour risk for heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Knowing your family history is critical when we talk about things like coronary artery disease,” Ashley said. “If you have a dad with heart disease before the age of 55, or a mom with heart disease before the age of 65, you’re at an increased risk of having coronary artery disease.” Other cardiac illnesses such as congenital issues or arrhythmias also run in families. Ashley encourages individuals who suspect they have a family history of heart disease to speak with their primary care provider and see a cardiologist for evaluation, if appropriate.

Be proactive when it comes to eating, sleeping and physical activity.

“We can keep our blood sugars, cortisol levels and adrenaline — all the things that can negatively impact the heart — down through proper diet, exercise, good sleep and stress management,” Ashley said.

When it comes to eating, Ashley said people should consume foods that are low in saturated fats and are less inflammatory, such as those in the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts, and healthy fats. “We have clinical research-based evidence that the Mediterranean diet is healthy from a vascular standpoint,” she said. “We also want to try to keep our weight in check and eating a healthy diet like this can help.”

When it comes to physical activity, Ashley said incorporating movement into daily life is a vital part of cardiovascular health — and general health. “I like people to do things they enjoy. If you like walking, dancing, swimming or gardening – I think that's great,” Ashley said. “Simple things like parking your car at the far end of the parking lot and walking further to get into the grocery store is beneficial.” Ashley also recommends finding a partner to join you in your activities and motivate you.

Visit your doctor every year.

Even if you are not currently living with a heart condition, it is important — especially for women — to visit their doctors annually and seek cardiac care if recommended. “It's important because you can have your risk factors assessed on an annual basis,” Ashley said. “As a woman enters perimenopause and menopause, her cardiovascular risk factors can substantially change.”

Doctors holds hand of patient.
Spivey is comforted by her VCU Health Pauley Heart Center cardiologist, Phoebe Ashley, M.D. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing).

Women can begin to develop abnormally high blood pressure, gain weight and experience negative changes to their cholesterol levels as they age — all of which increase risk factors for heart conditions. “If your physician is asking the right questions, then they can tease out some symptoms that a patient may have been unintentionally ignoring or assumed were normal for getting old,” Ashley said.“We all make excuses for how we feel or why we are too busy or too healthy to see the doctor,” Spivey said. “But tomorrow’s not guaranteed. Just go.”

Don't take a moment for granted. 

Spivey now proudly wears a 6-inch scar on her chest. It reminds her of her resilience and increasing strength, and that life is precious. Nine months out from open-heart surgery, Spivey is now taking ballet lessons for the first time.

“Over the holidays when all my kids were home, we reflected on a tough 2019 and talked about what we want 2020 to look like,” Spivey said. “My youngest daughter, Tori, said, ‘Mom, you've always wanted to take ballet.’” Having always watched her children at practice but never dancing herself, Spivey signed herself up for an introductory adult class at the Richmond Ballet. She has been going every Monday night for the past two months.

“At the end of the day, life is precious, so do the things you’ve always said you want to do. Just go for it. Be present. And always, love your people.”

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