By Dorothy Bliskey
Heart blockages were health issues Betsy Zuhlke, 58, thought she’d never have to endure. After all, she’d always led a healthy lifestyle. She kept fit with “bootcamp” workouts, ate a diet packed with nutritious vegetables and fruits, avoided alcohol and never smoked.
In spite of it, Betsy was blindsided by several heart blockages and the need for open heart surgery in the summer of 2016, undergoing a triple bypass surgery that repaired arteries blocked at 100 percent and 90 percent. She recovered well and regained strength with monitored cardiac rehab workouts that ended in October that year.
But symptoms returned that led to another open heart surgery four months after the first one due to the failure of one of the repaired arteries. This time complications arose.
Now, more than a year later, she’s feeling stronger, has returned to work as the marketing consultant for Beaver Dam radio stations WBEV and WXRO, and is enjoying life with husband Loren, their six adult children, three grandchildren and two dogs. Together, she and Loren also continue to operate their Fox Lake store – On Lake Time – a cooperative effort of repurposing, furnishings, home décor, gifts, natural lotions, soaps and chalk paint.
Looking back, Betsy’s heart issues first surfaced in July of 2016 while out walking her dogs on a warm summer evening. “I experienced a sudden burning sensation across my chest and pain down my arm and up my neck,” Betsy said, noting her husband and kids weren’t home and she didn’t have her cell phone. “I was the furthest point from home when this happened, and there was nobody in sight to ask for help.”
Although the symptoms had come on suddenly, deciding how serious they might be, getting medical attention, and diagnosing the problem took nearly a month.
After returning home from her evening walk with the dogs, Betsy monitored her blood pressure. “It was high but soon went down to normal,” she said, adding that she had been taking blood pressure medication for years. “So, I got into bed with my phone next to me.”
It wasn’t until the next morning that she told her husband what had happened on her walk the night before.
“I told Loren I thought I might have been close to a heart attack, but said I was much too young for that. He responded by telling me about a coworker who had a heart attack in his 40’s. That surprised me. I felt well the rest of the day but promised I would call my doctor on Monday morning.
Following through on her promise, Betsy made the call and was told to go to the emergency room. While her blood pressure was high, there was no sign of a heart attack or anything seriously wrong. She was sent home and told to follow up with her doctor.
Two weeks later, a stress test was done. The doctor immediately noticed a problem, and she was sent to St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison for a heart catheterization. “The doctor was very nice and walked us through the possibilities of what they could find and how it might be treated. The last option he mentioned was a bypass, but he quickly said, I’m not worried about that with you. You are young and in good shape.”
Unfortunately, a short time later, Betsy woke up in her hospital room to find out she had several blockages and that she was facing a triple or quadruple bypass surgery.
“I seriously thought they had mixed up the test results,” Betsy said. “I have always worked out and eaten healthy, depriving myself of burgers and sweets. It couldn’t be me!”
The next few days were a blur of activity for Betsy. Family and friends were in disbelief, reaching out with prayers and kind words. “My family and I discussed at length my faith in God and that whatever His will, I was good. We prayed together. And, as I entered the surgery room, I had a great sense of peace within me.”
Her surgery went well, and she returned home within a few days. Betsy worked out hard at cardiac rehab so she could get back on track as quickly as possible. “There were days I didn’t always feel very well, but I pushed onward.” Once she completed cardiac rehab, she continued to work out on her own.
But Betsy’s heart problems weren’t over.
In November of 2016, just four months after her first open heart surgery, she underwent a second one. “Symptoms similar to the first time returned. I had a burning sensation in my chest again, felt less energetic — like something wasn’t quite right.”
Tests showed that one of the bypasses she had in July had failed, and surgery was again necessary to address the problem. Two additional blockages were also found. This time several factors led to complications. While her medical team attempted to clear the blockages using the less invasive method of catheterization to insert a stent, open heart surgery became an emergent necessity.
“The plan was to put a stent in the artery, a relatively quick and easy procedure,” Betsy said. “But, five-and-a-half hours later, I was in trouble. They had difficulty getting the stent in due to all the scar tissue from the first surgery and ended up rupturing the artery. They now had about 20 minutes to get me ready for open heart surgery and try to thicken my blood.”
In addition to the complication of cutting through a surgical site that was just beginning to heal, excessive blood loss led to the need for a transfusion. Subsequently, a hematoma (a collection or pooling of blood) also formed in her chest area.
“After many hours and complications, I woke up days later to realize what had happened,” Betsy said. “The journey back from the second surgery was much longer and more difficult. It took a year for the hematoma to dissolve.”
Her disbelief that heart issues could happen to her led Betsy to conduct a little research. In the process she discovered, through an extensive blood panel test she requested, that she has elevated Lipoprotein(a). “It’s an inherited condition that lines your arteries with plaque — regardless of how well you take care of yourself,” Betsy said. “It can lead to a massive heart attack. To my understanding, it may worsen for women due to menopause,” she said, noting her siblings were tested, and two have elevated Lipoprotein(a). My children will also have to be checked.”
Today, Betsy has recovered from her second open heart surgery and is handling a robust exercise routine at Get Fit fitness center and hopes to include the more rigorous bootcamp workouts. “I have a new appreciation for daily life. I want to simplify and appreciate every day to its fullest.”
Her advice to other women who think heart problems can’t happen to them? “It can happen to anyone, no matter how well you take of yourself,” Betsy concludes. “And it doesn’t help if you keep quiet about your symptoms. You have to be your own advocate.”