Hole in the Heart: Kate's Story

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Kate Collins is a senior applications analyst for cardiology, and has worked at Bon Secours for about 4.5 years after a career working in industry, retiring a decade or so ago from GE. She works with equipment used for tests on the heart – and she’s used the equipment as a patient, both as a child with a heart condition and as a Bon Secours employee.

Hole in the Heart and Coronary Catheterization

Kate was born in 1948 two months premature. She spent about a month at the hospital fighting for her life since she had a hole in her heart that was expected to get larger. Her family brought her home expecting the worst. Due to her parents’ faith and her wonderful general practitioner – no pediatricians in her town at the time – she grew up “always a little bit blue”, but was still not expected to live past the age of 12.

At age eight, Kate got her first cath, or a coronary heart catheterization. In a coronary cath, a long thin tube is threaded through a blood vessel elsewhere in your body and into your heart to diagnose and treat heart conditions. Radiology equipment takes x-rays using contrast dye injected into the circulatory system to show the heart and blood vessels during the procedure.

Kate describes her cath procedure as “like going into a Stephen King book”. At the time, doctors wore aprons and goggles, and they had to keep the operating room very dark except for a surgical light so they could see the screen of the radiology machine showing Kate’s heart. She lay on her back and had to pedal on a “bicycle” to keep her heart rate up, and breathe into a canvas bag so they could check the pressure in her lungs. The entire procedure, to do both sides of her heart, took four hours. The doctors explained everything to her, and as they inserted the cath in her arm she was able to watch the entire procedure in the reflection of the doctor’s goggles. After having this experience, Kate was hooked and she knew she wanted to do something with radiology.

At 12, the age she was originally supposed to not live past, she hit puberty and her health improved. She gained weight, was able to play softball, and ran around like a regular 12-year-old. The hole in her heart had gotten small enough that it wasn’t interfering with her life anymore. The hole is still in her heart, and can be heard, but it is small enough to not be a problem.

Mini-Stroke

Kate has a strong family history of people dying young from heart disease, including her father at age 49. He had been having “mini-heart attacks” for three years before the bigger one that killed him, but they did not have ultrasound machines to do echocardiograms be able to look at his heart and see it was not pumping well, and did not know to do a cardiac catheterization or to give him medication. If he had been able to be treated, he could have lived longer. Despite this family history, Kate did not get immediate care when she had a cardiovascular emergency.

“As caregivers, we don’t always listen to what we preach to our patients.” Kate was gardening in her rose garden a couple of years ago on a cool day and sweated a ton; suspecting heat stroke, she went inside to cool off and lay down and didn’t feel well. When she got back up a couple of hours later she didn’t have control of her arm or her leg. Kate called her boss to let her know she couldn’t come to a planned event that evening, but rebuffed her boss’ attempts to get her to go to the emergency department. The next morning Kate was at the hospital trying to do the first case of the day but her right arm wouldn’t work, so her boss and a nearby doctor got her to the emergency room immediately.

Kate had had a TIA, or transient ischemic event, also known as a mini-stroke. A stroke is caused by a blood clot or hemorrhage (bleeding) in the brain, the same way a heart attack is caused by a blood clot in the heart. TIAs aren’t as severe as a regular stroke, but they are not something to ignore. Kate suffered from poor memory for about six months and had trouble finishing sentences. She may have had fewer side effects if she had called an ambulance and gone to the emergency department immediately upon noticing symptoms such as lack of control of her arm and leg.

Kate wasn’t supposed to be able to have children, but her son is turning 50 next year. “I’ve had a good life,” she says, and she is proud to have been able to be a part of the changes in the cath lab over the past several decades. When she was in x-ray school in 1969, some x-ray machines were still required to be taken in the dark, and they were developed in a darkroom on x-ray films; now, x-rays are digital. She was able to work on the “next generation” programs and equipment as they came out, including CT scans when they were new. She’s been an x-ray technologist since 1971 and is still working as a cardiovascular technologist. Kate lives by the maxim “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life,” saying that doing so “has done wonders for me”.