Avera Medical Minute Fixing and Strengthening a Broken Heart: The Journey from Surgery to Cardiac Rehab

Published: Feb. 6, 2023 at 9:38 PM CST
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Your heart is one of the most important muscles in your body, pumping blood from your head to your toes.

It’s a system that relies on consistency and when that rhythm is disrupted it can lead to problems quickly.

You wouldn’t guess it at first glance, but Mary Merrill is the face of heart failure.

She’s currently enrolled in cardiac rehab, but the series of unfortunate events that led her here weren’t initially heart-related.

Her journey began with a clinic visit looking for medication to treat a possible infection.

“And she looked at my leg, listened to my heart. And before I knew it, I was getting an echocardiogram,” said Merrill.

“When we first met her. It was just to say, unfortunately, you need surgery,” said Cardiovascular Surgeon with NCHI, Dr. Kalyan Vunnamadala.

“I was not expecting that at all!”

“For Mary, the issue was she had an infection and she had a type of valve that was more prone to that bacteria going in and sitting there. So she had what we call aortic insufficiency with the valve when it opened, it opened well. But when it closed, the leaflets weren’t coming together. So blood would leave the heart, but then come right back in.”

“My heart wouldn’t hold out any longer. So I was in surgery December 1st,” said Merrill.

“We performed an aortic valve replacement and so we take out the diseased aortic valve, and put a row of sutures all around the valve framework and then take a (mechanical) valve off the shelf and put it inside of her. Her surgery went as smooth as one could want it to go, and her outcomes have been great since then,” said Dr. Vunnamadala.

“Yeah, I’m so thankful to be home. I’m really thankful to be alive because I realize more and more every day what happened to me… and yeah, just very thankful.”

Mary’s defective valve was something she was born with, but the infection created a perfect storm. One that is being weathered through several weeks of focused exercise that will strengthen her heart and body.

“One of the things I think the benefit of rehab is it’s a monitored setting where you can slowly increase your endurance, your exercise tolerance. And I think it’s a nice safety net for patients to know. Okay, I can push myself when I’m being closely monitored by medical professionals. It’s not that they push you, but they want to build up your endurance.

“So I’ve had three sessions, and I’m sure I’ll have many more to come. They’re great!” said Merrill

Even during an intense cardiac rehab session, Mary’s demeanor is quiet, yet resilient. Every session builds on the last as she continues to find another level of strength and courage.

It’s the smaller things that add up to be big things for me anyway. So I’m just looking forward to life.

“Although this is scary to be told, you need heart surgery. I said you’ll do great. And she did. I had to, you know, tell her you’re doing wonderful. Stop being a mouse and be a lion! So she gets a kick out of that, I think.”

For more information on cardiovascular health and preventative screening, options go to Avera.org/MedicalMinute