‘A Heartbeat of Grace’: Patient recounts journey at Michigan Medicine

May 29, 2019  //  FOUND IN: News,

Kristin Sterk receiving treatment at Michigan Medicine.

At Michigan Medicine, faculty and staff are proud to make a difference in patients’ lives. Countless employees dedicate their careers to patients and go above and beyond expectations. In honor of these team members, Headlines is honored to share the story of patient Kristin Sterk, as she takes readers through her heart journey at Michigan Medicine.

Kristin is a wife, mother, blogger, author and an advanced heart failure patient. In the summer of 2018, Kristin wanted others to read about the depth of experience she has been through and became the author of “A Heartbeat of Grace,” a book recounting her experience.

In her own words, here is a brief glimpse at her heart journey:

From farm helper to basketball player

Growing up, my dad was a dairy farmer and I was his helper. On weekend afternoons we would often watch a game together as a sweet escape from the farm work. I loved watching sports with my dad. When it was time to milk the cows, he would turn on the radio so we could listen to a game. That is where my love for basketball started. I dreamed of being the first woman in the NBA as a young girl, but then to my luck the WNBA was created! (fun fact: I’m now 6’1”).

In high school I made a visit to my doctor for my routine sports physical. Everything was going well until my family physician stated that she heard a faint heart murmur. My doctor assumed it was nothing, but encouraged my parents to have me see a specialist just to make sure.

We approached the hospital near my home in Grand Rapids, Michigan with light worry, thinking nothing out of the ordinary would show up. At least until the medical technician stepped out of the room while performing my echocardiogram, which caused my mom and I to be alarmed. Within minutes, a doctor stepped in and he asked us to meet him in a conference room. As I sat at the head of the table, the cardiologist proceeded to tell me that I had a rare heart condition called ALCAPA (anomalous left coronary from the pulmonary). It’s a fancy way of saying that the pulmonary and coronary arteries were connected and the left side of my heart was only receiving deoxygenated blood. I was only 17 and according to statistics, it was a miracle that I even made it that far in life, since many did not make it past the first year of life.

The only way to fix the congenital heart defect was to have open heart surgery. It wasn’t the fact that I needed open heart surgery that devastated me. I was being forced to quit the sport I had been obsessed with since I was a little girl and I had to let go of my dreams to play college. That evening, I met up with my team and broke the news to them. Tears and hugs flowed as I said goodbye.

The leaking valve

On Jan. 17, 2001, I had a successful open heart surgery. The recovery went extremely well and I was back to school full time within two weeks after surgery. Over the next few years, I graduated college and married the love of my life. Within those years, I learned that my mitral valve started to leak slowly, which caused some concern about me having children in the future. The worry eased in 2015 when my husband and I gave birth to our beautiful daughter, Mazy Grace.

In 2017, I was referred to U-M to follow up with a cardiologist for my heart issues. I met with Dr. Monica Colvin and she informed me that I would need another open heart surgery to repair my mitral valve. So, on Oct. 20, 2017, I had my second open heart surgery performed by Dr. Steven Bolling. It was successful and it went just as it should.

Kristin gets airlifted to Ann Arbor.

About four days after being home, I started to feel ill. The visiting nurse assumed I was coming down with the flu, but by the next morning, I was lethargic, nauseous, in an incredible amount of pain, short of breath and my vitals were all over the place. My friend, who happened to be a nurse, took me to the ER and within 15 minutes, I had to be flown via helicopter to Michigan Medicine.

After numerous tests, it was evident that the repair done on my mitral valve had blown because the tissue where the sutures were had calcified. My valve was not working at all. As a result, I needed yet another open heart surgery to now replace the valve.

It was a grueling six days in the ICU before I was healthy enough to have another surgery and my organs started to fail. The nurse practitioners and nurses on the CVC ICU floor helped me get through this emotional time when I did not believe I would make it through. After many tests and medications, I was finally able to have the open heart surgery done by Dr. Francis Pagani, now going through the sternum, to replace my mitral valve and repair my tricuspid valve.

I was in the hospital for 16 days that round, since my body and heart had so much healing to do. I started to experience post-traumatic stress disorder from all that had occurred, but again, it was the nurses and nurse practitioners that helped me gain the confidence I needed to work through those fears.

After a month of visiting nurses and in-home physical therapy, things were looking up. I finally graduated to cardiac rehab at a hospital in Holland, Michigan, where I went three times a week to get my heart and body back in working order. By the end of rehab, I was jogging and thought I had a new lease on life. Little did we know that two months later, at a visit back at U-M, we learned that my ejection fraction was only 20 percent and it has been an uphill battle ever since.

Thank you, Michigan Medicine

Steven Bolling, M.D., and Kristin.

I have been in the most amazing care at Michigan Medicine. From the surgeons to the cardiologists, electrophysiologists, nurses and medical assistants, I have never felt like a number. I’m a patient who they really care about. They seem to work tirelessly to get my heart healthy again and I could not be more thankful for the care they have given me.

In September, I had further complications. So, in February, I had a subcutaneous ICD (implantable cardioverter-defibrillator) implanted because I am at a severe risk for going into cardiac arrest.

I am on the brink of a heart transplant and we know that I will most likely need one in the future, but the doctors and myself are not willing to give in yet. And that is why I am so thankful for Dr. Monica Colvin and Dr. Ryan Cunnane for their persistent work to do whatever they can to improve the function of my heart. Being a mom and wife, living with advanced heart failure is not always easy, but it has given me the opportunity to relate to others who have gone through a difficult medical journey as well.

For that, I am thankful.

Kristin will be undergoing another procedure soon at Michigan Medicine. To read more about her story, please visit her website and blog at www.kristinsterk.com.