Susan Stafford, an attorney with the Florida Legislature, is one of the last people you would expect to have heart disease. The 61-year-old Tallahassee resident has been active and fit with a passion for hiking and travel.
Then, one night in November 2010, after returning from a hiking trip in Oregon, she collapsed in her home and had to be rushed to the hospital. There, doctors performed a heart catheterization and other tests that indicated a problem with her heart, but the exact problem eluded them. Susan became sicker and sicker over the next few months and made several trips back to the hospital. Soon, her body began to shut down. Doctors had to insert a heart pump and place her on a ventilator to keep her alive.
Susan was transferred to Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville where it was eventually discovered that she had myoendocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle caused by a mysterious virus. The virus that was attacking her heart eventually resolved and the type and source of the virus was never discovered, but the damage was severe enough that by May 2011, she was evaluated at Mayo Clinic for a heart transplant and placed on the national waiting list.
As she waited for a heart transplant, Susan decided to begin cardiac rehabilitation at Capital Regional Medical Center who operate the only hospital-based cardiac rehab program in Tallahassee. “When I first started going over there, I could barely walk,” she says. “I had to lean on my daughter’s arm getting there.” But she kept going twice a week, working with Casey Walton, a clinical physiologist and the cardiac wellness coordinator who specializes in cardiac rehab.
“Casey is amazing,” Susan says. “He is so upbeat and encouraging. He knows the personal stories of the patients and seems to care so much, almost like a friend. That makes a tremendous difference. I look forward to going there. When he says, ‘Let’s step it up a bit, or go a little faster or a little longer,’ I will do it. Because everyone there is so friendly and caring, I really enjoy going there.”
Susan’s cardiac rehab is making a huge difference in her continuing recovery. In April 2012, she went back to Mayo Clinic for a follow-up visit and doctors were amazed by her progress. “They put me through all the paces again, the treadmill, the lung capacity and all of the other tests, and they couldn’t believe how much I had improved,” she said. “They are going to retest me again in six months and if the numbers are the same, they will put me on the inactive status list. That would be wonderful! So I am going to keep doing the cardiac rehab and hope that I can avoid having a heart transplant.”