By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Kara Byrd was born with a heart defect, but it never caused problems as a child. Cardiologists monitored the ventricular septal defect – a hole between her heart’s bottom chambers.
Then, as a young adult, everything suddenly changed.
Living on her own in New York with limited health insurance at age 22, Byrd was feeling OK but got an echocardiogram just to be safe. Her doctor said her heart looked fine and to return in a year for another screening.
About three weeks later, she began to get sick. “Everything hit the fan,” she recalled.
She was admitted to the hospital on her 23rd birthday in 1994. At first, doctors thought it couldn’t be her heart because she’d just had a clean echocardiogram. But they did another echo and additional tests and discovered the hole in her heart had quickly grown more than two sizes. There was also a ruptured aneurysm behind her aortic valve.
Byrd was in multi-system organ failure. Five times the proper amount of blood was flowing into her lungs. Doctors wondered how she didn’t drown in her own blood.
They rushed her to a heart hospital for emergency surgery. It wasn’t clear whether her aortic valve could be saved, and surgeons warned if they had to implant an artificial valve she might never have children because of the drugs she would have to take.
Byrd was devastated by that news.
“I knew even at that time, at 23 years old, a family was extremely important,” she said. But her father warned her, “You have to do this or you won’t be here tomorrow.”
Surgeons closed the hole in her heart. They rebuilt aortic leaflets that were destroyed by the aneurysm with synthetic material but did not need to replace the valve with an artificial one. At the last minute, they found another hole, this one between the upper chambers, and closed it.
“Thank God!” Byrd said. “It just was all a miracle in itself.”
While living in Florida with her parents during recovery, she reconnected with her high school sweetheart, Chris Byrd, who lived in Atlanta. She eventually relocated there to be with him.
Fast forward 20 years: Byrd is now 43 and married to Chris, living in the Atlanta area. And, she was destined for motherhood.
“I am now the mom of four fabulous children. They are all miracles,” she said. Her kids range from ages 5 to 15. She works at a church preschool and enjoys planning women’s getaways in her spare time.
Her health is good, though she was diagnosed a few years ago with atrial fibrillation, which is a quivering or irregular heartbeat. It’s likely attributable to the manipulation and construction of her heart, she said, but medication controls it.
Byrd has found that any time she’s needed a new medicine, it becomes available because of ongoing scientific studies. That’s one reason she’s so devoted to the American Heart Association and its commitment to research.
“It means the world to me,” she said. “They saved my life.”
When she moved to Atlanta, she volunteered with the association, speaking at a state conference and other events and doing radio and TV spots. Later, she became a secretary there and rose to Southeast Affiliate program director for schools and the workplace.
After leaving her full-time position to start her family, Byrd remained a passionate volunteer. She got involved in the association’s “Choose To Move” program encouraging women to take control of their health and has participated in other women’s health initiatives.
Byrd considers her emergency surgery at age 23 in many ways to the best time in her life. It reconnected her with the love of her life and led to rewarding work.
“I am forever grateful,” she said. “I definitely have been blessed.”
Photos courtesy of Kara Byrd
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