Take it to Heart

By Shelley Hill Young

Photography by Libby Williams

In February, the American Heart Association encourages you to Go Red for Women to raise awareness of heart disease and stroke and to raise money to fund research, create education programs, lobby for health laws and train people in CPR. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States. The American Heart Association provides $6.5 million for research in South Carolina.

The goal of the Go Red for Women campaign is to encourage women to take charge of their health, especially since every day 16 women in South Carolina don’t come home to their families because of heart disease and stroke,” says Jennifer Waites, marketing director for the Lowcountry chapter of the American Heart Association.

We talked with three women who are serving as ambassadors for the American Heart Association: a heart transplant survivor, a stroke survivor and a mother who is caring for a young baby with heart disease.

A Good Heart
Vernelle Dickerson was at a Tiger Woods Foundation fundraiser in Maryland when she heard what she describes as a sonic boom. It was her heart. She’d had a defibrillator implanted six years earlier because of the congestive heart failure she had as a result of the chemotherapy treatments that knocked out her leukemia.

“That was the most horrifying experience I’ve ever had,” she says. “I could hear it but nobody else could.”

Once she got to the ER and was hooked up to a heart monitor, nurses could prepare her for when the next boom would come.

“I have never been so afraid in my life,” she says.

After the heart attack, Vernelle was put on the top of the priority list for a new heart. But she had to wait because patients must be cancer-free for at least five years before doctors will do a heart transplant. She got the call that a heart was available and had a transplant in 2011.

Now, Vernelle, 66, goes to the gym three times a week, eats lots of vegetables and avoids stress. Worrying? “I don’t do any of that,” she says.

Vernelle says she wants others who are dealing with heart disease to know: “There is life. You don’t just give up or give in. You just keep pushing. You live life.”

She says her faith in God gets her through each day. Doctors “gave me up a few times, but God didn’t give me up,” she says.
“I have a lot of peace in me,” she adds later. “I’m a very spiritual person. As long as you have hope and goals, you’ll do well.”

‘I’m a Warrior’
Laurie Bailey credits CrossFit for saving her life. She was in the middle of a workout when she says she started to “feel a little funny.” She thought she might be dehydrated and reached for her bottle of water, but she couldn’t move her arm. A nurse who happened to be in her class looked at Laurie and knew immediately she had had a stroke.

“You’re thinking, ‘Oh, my God, people die from this.’ You’re thinking, ‘I’m healthy.’” Laurie recalling what was going through her head as she was rushed to the hospital.

Laurie had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke, which means a blood vessel ruptured and is bleeding inside the brain. The odds of survival are not good, and those who do survive usually have a disability.

Laurie walked out of the intensive care unit two days later. Doctors have not been able to determine what exactly led to her stoke, but she’s certain why she survived.

“The only reason I am alive today is because I was already so fit and healthy,” she says. “My healthy lifestyle saved my life. Crossfit saved my life.”

Two years later at age 50, Laurie continues her health regime: She still does Crossfit, sees a holistic health practitioner and a nutritionist. She says 90 percent of what she eats, she prepares in her kitchen.

“I don’t look at it like I’m a survivor,” Laurie says. “I’m a warrior.”

At first, Laurie says, she was hesitant to talk about what happened, but she says she learned that “the more you talk, the more people you help, and then they help you, too.”

Laurie says those dealing with heart disease need to remember why you’re told to put on the oxygen mask first in the airplane – that you need to save your own life before you can help others.  

“You have to come first when it comes to your health,” she says. “It doesn’t take that much time. You’ve got to invest in yourself.”

Hope for Hampton
Jessica McDevitt found out her son, Hampton, had only half a heart when she was 18 months pregnant. It’s a rare condition called hypoplastic right heart syndrome. Hampton had his first open heart surgery when he was four days old. He was scheduled to have another surgery four months later, but doctors found that he had a complicating condition called pulmonary vein stenosis, which is a progressively fatal disease. They determined that follow-up procedures would not be successful, and Jessica and her husband made the decision to put Hampton in hospice care.

Then Cameran Eubanks Wimberly from the “Southern Charm” reality show posted Hampton’s story on Instagram. (Cameran is a client of Hampton’s dad, who is a personal trainer.) A mother in California saw the post and reached out to Jessica, urging her to look into Boston Children’s Hospital. She had a child with the same diagnosis who had treatment that had been successful so far.

Jessica, her husband, and their older son, Miller, celebrated Hampton’s first birthday in August. A month later, they visited Boston Children’s Hospital. Doctors told Jessica they had never had a patient with Hampton’s anatomy survive, but they agreed to perform a heart catheter procedure and were able to reopen one of his closed veins, which Jessica says is “huge.”

Hampton returned to Boston in December and is on a regime of medication to help his body accept the stent that was implanted in September. Now, they wait again.

Jessica tries not to be discouraged by the uncertainty of it all. She’s learned that doctors just don’t know what to tell their family.

“They’re like we’ve never seen this before,” she says.

Jennifer of the American Heart Association Lowcountry says Hampton’s treatment is paving the way for other babies with his condition so doctors can increase survival rates. And, she says, Jessica’s story highlights how important caretakers are in providing support for people with heart disease.

Jessica says each time it seems there’s nothing else they can do for their little boy, another door opens, so they wait and hope. She takes life day by day and relies on her faith for comfort and strength. “If I didn’t have that hope of heaven and complete healing, I don’t know what I’d do,” she says.