Press-Republican

January 20, 2011

Women share stories of heart-disease survival

Cardiovascular-disease survivors stress health at Go Red dinner

MICHELLE BESAW
Press-Republican

PLATTSBURGH — Stephanie Ormsby and Ginger Zimmerman have a lot in common.

They are both mothers of three boys, wives and career women — and they're both survivors of cardiovascular disease.

They shared their stories with 400 other women — and a sprinkling of men — during the third-annual Go Red for Women dinner at Plattsburgh State to stress the importance of heart health.

BURNING PAIN

"Feb. 1, 2010 changed my life forever," Ormsby said.

She began that day like any other, doing household chores at her home in Peru, getting ready for work and taking the dog out.

But when she bent over to make her bed, a burning pain traveled across her chest and down her left arm. She was having a heart attack.

For Ormsby, the thought of not seeing her sons — Michael, Matthew and Ryan — was the most troubling, which is why she stresses that women see a health-care provider regularly.

"If not for yourself, for your children and the ones you love."

Ormsby had never smoked, ate well and was in good health.

"To this day, they don't know what caused my heart attack. That is the scariest thing."

CALLED HYPOCHONDRIAC

Like Ormsby, Zimmerman was a healthy, young mother — but Zimmerman had signs early on that something was wrong.

At 28, she was a working artist, mother and wife who lived in Baton Rouge, La.

"We had plans for the future," she said of her family. "Most of all, I had a life."

But that all changed as her energy and health began to fade. She spent years searching for the cause of her illness, while doctors pointed out that she was too young and healthy for heart disease.

"I was quickly labeled a hypochondriac," Zimmerman said. "I live with my body every day, and I know if it's not working properly."

And she was right.

After four years, Zimmerman was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Her heart was functioning at only 15 percent.

"I was told I was dying. I was 32 years old."

DONOR HEART

She was put on a transplant list, her only chance of surviving. Her sons were 4, 9 and 13 at the time, and she was told to prepare for the worst.

After 3½ months, a donor heart was found.

It belonged to a 30-year-old Denver woman.

"It was bittersweet but what a wonderful gift and just in time," Zimmerman said.

But with that good came the bad.

ROUGH LANDING

Her husband, David, was working in the Gulf of Mexico when they called him about the transplant. He immediately secured a helicopter so he could see her before surgery.

But, on the way, mechanical problems forced the pilot to make a bumpy emergency landing on pontoons in the water. They were eventually able to reach the hospital.

Before she went to surgery, David assured her he was fine, despite his grayish coloring and headaches.

He was by her bedside when she awoke from surgery.

"You made it; you're alive," he whispered to her.

Though no one knew at first, he had suffered an impact tear, and an artery in his brain was bleeding. It was inoperable.

"There was nothing they could do to save his life," Zimmerman said.

He died nine days after her transplant.

"This new heart, how could it survive being broken so soon?" she said, choking up.

"I had to live," she said, for her three young sons.

"In my mind, there was no option."

'SURVIVING TO LIVE'

It is with that mind set that Zimmerman passed her eight-year life expectancy. It's been 13 years since the surgery.

"Leaps and bounds have been made," she said, referring to medical advances in heart disease. "But we've got to do more."

She stressed the importance of early detection and emphasized prevention.

"I can't live each day in fear. It's not about surviving just to die another day; it's about surviving to live."

E-mail Michelle Besaw at: mbesaw@pressrepublican.com