Karen Ward, a mum of three from Carrickmacross in Co Monaghan, ran the 2019 Dublin Women’s Mini Marathon – just six months previously she underwent open heart surgery.
Karen was born with a congenital heart defect called aortic stenosis.
Aortic stenosis means that the aortic valve – which allows blood to flow from the main artery supplying blood to the body (the aorta) is narrow and cannot open fully. The narrowing of the aortic valve means that the muscle of the left chamber of the heart – the left ventricle – must work harder than normal. This can lead to a thickening of the muscle. The thicker the muscle becomes, the less efficient it is at pumping blood. If left untreated, serious complications such as heart failure can occur, or in some rare cases, it can be fatal.
While Karen’s condition was picked up when she was born and she underwent regular check-ups, it never caused her any problems. A very active woman, Karen ran three times a week and went to the gym twice a week, a routine she was doing right up to a week before her surgery
However, in July 2018 when Karen attended for her regular six -month check-up she was told she had reached the stage where something would have to be done.
“I was fine as far as I knew but it happened very quickly. I had the scan and I saw the cardiologist in July, they booked me in for an angiogram in September, I saw the surgeon in October, and I had my surgery in November,” Karen explained.
“ The biggest challenge was going into hospital well and not knowing if you would be coming out again.”
What really frightened Karen was being told that her level of stenosis meant that she had only a 50 per cent chance of being alive in five years’ time.
“It was a little bit scary because I never felt I had something wrong with me, but for them to say that and then the fact that they booked me in for surgery so quickly, I knew it needed to be done. I wanted it done when I was feeling well, I didn’t want to wait until I was sick.”
Just weeks after her 45th birthday Karen underwent open heart surgery to replace her aortic valve.
For Karen the biggest challenge was “going into hospital well and not knowing if you would be coming out again.”
“You have to really trust your surgeon which I did. He came in to see me the night before the surgery and he told me that I would be OK and I believed him,” she said.
In order to carry out lifesaving surgery on her heart the surgeon had to cut through her sternum or breastbone.
Karen described waking up after the seven-hour operation as feeling as if she had “been hit by a bus.”
She said she was in a lot of pain immediately after the operation which was something she was not prepared for.
“I literally couldn’t lift my hand up to scratch the back of my head the day after surgery I was in so much pain…the first three to five days after the surgery you are just so sore. Everything was sore to cough, sneeze. Nobody had said that to me beforehand so I didn’t realise the amount of pain I would be in.”
" I am very proud of my scar. It is because of my scar that I am still here,"
Three months after the surgery Karen was back at work and on Sunday the 02 June 2019 she ran the mini marathon for the Irish Heart Foundation.
“I didn’t think that having the surgery in November I would be able for it. I had a few friends doing it with me as well…, there was no way they could say no,” she smiled.
Karen said she decided to run the Mini Marathon for the Irish Heart Foundation for a number of reasons, mainly because when she was in hospital, she witnessed just how many people and their families are affected by heart disease.
She also said she was very grateful to the Irish Heart Foundation for the invaluable advice and support she received during her recovery in the form of patient information leaflets.
Asked what advice she would have for anyone about to undergo heart surgery, she said it was important to have somebody to talk to and confide in.
“Have someone that you can talk to and say how afraid you are …. I talked to a friend of mine and I would have said all the things that I was afraid of to her … Cry if you want to, I cried from Carrick to the hospital and then I stopped; I said I am not crying anymore. It is normal to be afraid – just to have somebody to talk to would be one of the big things.”
“You think you will never be better, but the good news is that you are,” she said.
Now back at work and running again Karen said she was doing really well and that her scar was healing nicely.
“It is very visible; I don’t hide it. I have had a few funny comments about it. I overheard someone say I had to wear a necklace to cover it and one man told me ‘you are a good-looking girl it shouldn’t take away from you’.
“For me it is important to show it off, it doesn’t bother me one little bit. In fact, I am very proud of my scar. It is because of my scar that I am still here.”