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by Muriel Mikkelson
Never doubt the power of determination and a little Norwegian stubbornness. That along with family, friends and prayers saved my life at age 75.
A long time ago, I was diagnosed with a heart murmur. My cardiologist and primary care doctor monitored it with regular check-ups every three to six months, but things changed in spring of 2011.
The energy I always had was disappearing, and I was becoming weak. I was told that two valves in my heart — the mitral and tricuspid — needed to be repaired. I waited just long enough to celebrate my 50th wedding anniversary with my husband before having surgery that June. I remained in the hospital for about a month and worked with a physical therapist before being discharged. While I was happy to be home, my health continued to deteriorate.
By October, my cardiologist recommended a second surgery; this time, the surgeons replaced my mitral and tricuspid valves with pig valves. Shortly after, they inserted a pacemaker. My recovery was slow, and the medical staff didn’t know if I’d recover.
I spent three months recuperating at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wis. and another month at the Dunn County Health Care Center in Menomonie, Wis. The first week after surgery, I was on a ventilator and dialysis; and one month after surgery, my lungs filled with fluid and had to be drained three times.
I also began therapy with a physical therapist to build strength, a speech therapist to relearn how to swallow and an occupational therapist to improve coordination and balance. The hardest exercises were with the physical therapist. When we first began, I could not even sit upright without toppling over. I hated the sessions, but I was grateful for each of my mini milestones. First, it was simply standing for 15 seconds; then, it was walking with a walker across the room. But I could never have done it alone.
My family brightened my mood with daily visits, and strangers across the country helped by praying for me once my name was added to numerous prayer lists.
Despite all this support, I was discouraged: I wanted to get better faster—I didn’t think it would take four months! I needed to get past those days of feeling sick and feeling tired. After a while, I began taking medication for depression.
The days that went so slowly for my family, who were always driving back and forth to the hospital, went even more slowly for me. But finally, I was physically well enough to go home. This milestone was the change I needed to get emotionally healthy, and soon I was off the depression medication.
The therapies continued for another month during home visits from a nurse, aide and physical therapist since I was still unable to do many daily activities. Eventually, the feeding tube that I had been dependent upon since the surgery was removed, and I was able to shower on my own so I no longer needed the help of a visiting nurse.
Perhaps my best accomplishments were gained at Mayo Clinic Health System’s Cardiac Rehabilitation department in Menomonie. When I started exercising there in February 2012, I needed help just to walk from the car to the building. At first, I used the Nustep® machine, and after one month of steady improvement, I was able to exercise for 20 minutes! With this new milestone, I was encouraged to try walking on the treadmill and lifting weights. It was a slow pace at first, but after a year of gradual improvement, I finally plateaued.
The Cardiac Rehabilitation staff celebrated each milestone with me by writing positive, encouraging messages and giving me stickers for each of the early therapy sessions.
Now, I exercise on the treadmill or the elliptical. It feels good to be able to do that and resume my former activities. I’ve stayed with the cardiac therapy maintenance program to continue building my strength and stamina.
Regaining my mobility has been hard work. I had to be faithful to therapy and overcome setbacks to see the small improvements, but I’m grateful for every one of them. It’s been worth it.