Living a Happy Life, With a Happy Heart

Engage with the West Michigan Woman Community!

Hurrying back to my dorm room, I was filled with excitement as I finally had time to relax and take a shower! (Life as a college student is hectic!)

As I stepped into a hot shower, I suddenly became lightheaded and passed out.

Aquinas College Campus safety officers arrived shortly and helped me to the couch. After a few questions and taking my vital signs, they concluded that it was only dehydration.

Although it seemed I had been drinking enough water, I made a doctor's appointment right away just to ease my anxiety. Thankfully, I listened to my instincts! As I was walking out of the campus health center, I was told I had a heart murmur.

A heart murmur?!

I had been alive for 19 years and had no knowledge of this.

Before I could truly comprehend the severity of the heart murmur, I quickly received a distressing diagnosis of an Atrial Septal Defect: a congenital birth defect. In simple terms, it's a hole in your heart. As a 19-year-old on a college campus, I felt alone, scared and a little bit angry.

With one of the biggest holes they had ever seen—33 millimeters—I was still trying to live my normal life. I had just applied to study abroad, I was entering exam week, and I loved my life. I was not prepared for change, nor did I want to hear what I was about to endure.

Only a week later Dr. Joseph Vettukattil, an interventional cardiologist, and Dr. Marcus Haw, a congenital heart surgeon, immediately scheduled me for surgery at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital. Not only did I deal with one surgery, but two.

The first surgery didn't go as well as hoped. The hole in my heart proved too large to close without open-heart surgery.

For about eight months, I found myself back at my parents, watching an endless amount of Netflix. I chose to have my heart surgery done through the side, rather than opening my rib cage. They went in through my right side; I understood it would take longer to heal this way because they would have to go through nerves and muscles, but it sounded less scary to me and—at the time—any sort of relief was all I needed.

As those eight months went by I experienced several surreal moments, both positive and negative. But by the end of my journey, I found myself on top of a mountain in the land of Costa Rica! I was experiencing life with a whole new heart and perspective!

Today I count my blessings, as I enter my first year of graduate school. I am much more aware of my health and I urge others to be aware as well. The heart is an amazing organ and it should never be taken for granted.

As I like to say: Try to live a happy life, with a happy heart!

Ashley Heitzman is 23-year-old starting her second semester in a Master of Social Work program. She hopes to make a difference by becoming a Medical Social Worker. She continues to improve her health through yoga, making an endless number of smoothies, and using the majority of her energy taking care of others. She hopes to travel the world someday, start a family, and always be reminded of her blessings through each experience.

More stories you'll love