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Grandmother Doesn’t Skip a Beat after Heart Surgeries


By Michelle Brubaker   |   September 11, 2013

Rae Arnold is an energetic grandmother with a sunny disposition who loves to travel around the world with her husband. One morning during a routine workout almost two years ago, she experienced shortness of breath and an unusual burning in the back of her throat. She had no idea at the time that these symptoms would completely change her life.

Rae Arnold “I went to my primary care physician, who recommended an inhaler for possible exercise-induced asthma,” said Arnold.

After her symptoms persisted, Arnold was referred to a cardiologist to undergo stress tests. While waiting for the results, Arnold’s symptoms intensified. She experienced extreme fatigue and developed pain in her jaw.

“I couldn’t believe when my results came back and showed I had three major blockages in my arteries. I had no idea that jaw pain was a symptom of heart disease,” said Arnold. “My firefighter son told me I was a heart attack waiting to happen.”

Arnold does have a family history of cardiovascular disease but had no risk factors herself. She ate well, exercised regularly and her vital signs were always in normal range.

Before going to UC San Diego Health, Arnold underwent her first open heart surgery in June 2011.

Rae Arnold “I told my husband before surgery that I was not ready to let go and I would fight through this,” said Arnold. “My kind husband later gave me the most beautiful bracelet engraved with ‘Don’t Let Go,’” said Arnold, whose husband retired as an elementary school principal two days after her surgery to take care of his wife of 41 years.

Her surgery was successful and she started physical rehabilitation soon after.

“It was all going so well until about 12 weeks post-surgery. I was walking on the treadmill during a rehabilitation session, and I started to have jaw pain again,” said Arnold. “I knew something was very wrong.”

Test results showed two of the three arteries were blocked again, as were all her bypass grafts, and she needed another bypass surgery. During the second procedure, surgeons realized that scar tissue had adhered and ripped a hole in Arnold’s heart.

“I almost died twice on the table. They sewed me up and said there was nothing else they could do for me,” said Arnold. “I had a good cry for the first time because there was no plan. It was a long four days.”

Then Arnold was told she needed to go out of network to receive treatment at UC San Diego Health’s Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center (SCVC), which specializes in high risk cardiac care.

“After receiving insurance approval, I had an appointment set the next day,” said Arnold. “That was when I first met my team of miracle workers who had a plan for me.”

Rae Arnold

“After thoroughly looking at Rae’s medical records before her initial appointment at SCVC, I knew we needed to use a less invasive approach with a multidisciplinary team,” said Michael Madani, MD, FACS, heart surgeon and director, Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center-Surgery.

Arnold was soon introduced to Ehtisham Mahmud, MD, FACC, chief of cardiovascular medicine and director, Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center-Medicine.

“As soon as Dr. Mahmud walked into the room, I felt at peace,” said Arnold. “I knew being treated by the team of experts at Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center was medical care at its finest.”

Mahmud decided the best approach was to open the 100 percent blocked coronary arteries and implant stents, but first he needed to address Arnold’s aspirin allergy.

“Aspirin is mandatory for patients after coronary stent implantation to prevent blood clots,” said Mahmud. “We slowly administered escalating doses of aspirin to Rae and closely monitored her in the hospital to desensitize her body to the synthetic compound allergy. By the following morning, her body was not reacting negatively to aspirin, and she was taken to the interventional cardiology suite.”

“I was awake during the procedure, and soon after the two stents were implanted, I could literally feel the difference as the blood flew through my arteries. I became very emotional,” said Arnold.

She required implantation of seven additional stents by Mahmud.

“Every person I have come into contact with at UC San Diego Health is professional and compassionate. I truly feel like I’m part of the UC San Diego family, and Dr. Mahmud makes me feel like I’m the only patient he is treating,” said Arnold. “I have recommended him to friends and family members. When you have the best, you want to share.”

Through this experience Arnold said she has improved her lifestyle even more, eating healthier, working out more with her husband by her side and being more aware of her blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol numbers. Her journey has given her a voice in the community about the awareness and prevention of heart disease.

“I’m now very active in our community and speak to many groups and organizations about my personal story with heart disease. I have learned it is the number one killer of women, and there are symptoms many people don’t even realize are signs of danger,” said Arnold.

Risk factors and symptoms of cardiovascular disease in women include feeling breathless, nausea, clamminess and cold sweats, unexplained fatigue, weakness or dizziness and pain in the upper back, shoulders, neck or jaw.

Organizations and events like the American Heart Association’s San Diego Heart Walk, sponsored by UC San Diego Health, are making a difference to support the education, advocacy and research of heart disease.

“It’s so important for the community to learn more about this disease and support the cause through events like the heart walk,” said Arnold. “I want patients to know that you can live a full life after open heart surgery. I am a better person living a more enriched life having gone through the past few years. I continue to enjoy my passions, which include traveling and spending time with my precious grandchildren.”

The American Heart Association’s San Diego Heart Walk is an annual event that raises awareness of heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases.  This year, the event will take place on September 28 at Petco Park.

Related Specialties

Cardiovascular Medicine