Joining the zipper club at 83
At the age of 83, Dolores ‘Toni’ Gibson had always lived a healthy life.
She’d never had surgery, had a large support network with three daughters, 12 grandchildren and eight great grandchildren and never experienced many health issues.
But this past spring, that all changed when Toni started to experience shortness of breath.
“We knew something was wrong last June when she started having trouble breathing,” recalls Toni’s daughter Dana Mammoser. “When the symptoms got worse, we immediately took her to the emergency room and had an EKG done. That’s when we learned she had atrial fibrillation.”
Atrial fibrillation refers to an abnormal heart rhythm resulting in the heart not efficiently pumping blood to the body. It can lead to chest pain, shortness of breath and even heart failure.
You are more likely to get atrial fibrillation if you have heart disease, valvular disease or a heart attack. During Toni’s work-up, the doctors discovered she had severe mitral regurgitation, which means the valve between the upper and lower chamber of the heart on the left side did not close properly, resulting in the upper chamber of the heart being enlarged.
So Toni and family met with Dr. Frank Lutrin, a cardiovascular surgeon the Advocate Heart Institute at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., and on June 29, at the age of 83, Toni had her first-ever surgery, an open heart surgery to replace her mitral valve with an artificial tissue valve.
“I remember thinking, ‘this sure is a whopper of a surgery to have as your first ever surgery’ when we found out she would need to go in for the procedure,” says Dana.
And a whopper it was.
Toni’s family waited patiently the day of her surgery, unsure if she would make it through. But as Dana always says, “My mom’s a fighter.”
And fight she did. Four weeks in the ICU was followed by an additional two and a half weeks at the hospital, for a grand total of a 45-day-stay post-surgery.
Forty-five days in the hospital can be a drain on anyone, but especially an 83-year-old who had never had much experience with hospitals. So for Toni, the bond she formed with her surgeon’s assistant Susie O’Mara, truthfully made all the difference.
“I’m not sure what I would have done if it weren’t for Susie,” says Toni. “She’s truly a special person. Not only was Susie extremely knowledgeable, always there to ease our concerns and answer any lingering questions we might have, but she did it all with a smile on her face. Without her, this experience would have been so much more difficult.”
“For mom, Susie truly was a lifesaver,” says her daughter, Dana. “I remember the day of surgery thinking she might not make it, and throughout that day, Susie was there, calming our fears, making sure we were comfortable.”
And for Toni, who is still on the road to recovery, having completed three of 36 cardiac rehab appointments, Susie is still there for her every step of the way.
“I’ve lost 25 pounds, and I’m still not able to drive, but little by little, I’m getting there,” Toni says. “Before my surgery, I taught beading at Roosevelt University, making bracelets, among other things, and I’ve started beading Susie a bracelet that looks like a zipper. They say people who have open heart surgery are all part of the zipper club because of the scar on their chest, and I want Susie to be part of that club, too, with this bracelet. Because honestly, she got me through this.”
About the Author
Jacquelien Hughes is the manager, media relations at Advocate Aurora Health. Previously, she was the co-managing editor of Advocate health enews. She earned her BA in psychology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Jackie has 10 plus years experience working in television and media and most recently worked at NBC 5 in Chicago. In her free time, she enjoys swimming, going to the movies and spending time with her family.