A Tale of One Heart

We all have our own stories to tell.

I am blessed because I am one of God’s children. And I can always look back and quickly recall a remarkable story about His providential care over my life. I believe that God has ordained everything, even the minute details of my life, before the foundations of the world. The scripture says, “But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered . . . And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will.” (Luke 12:7; 21:18) Which brings me to share a recent experience that once again proved His sovereignty over my life. 

I have had heart palpitations (for the first time) sometime in January of this year and I immediately called my GP to book an appointment. She then referred me for an ECG at a local hospital and after it appeared that I have some type of heart ailment, I was referred to another local hospital for more tests. It became clear after having Echo and other tests that it’s something more serious, so I was referred to Royal Brompton, UK’s Heart Hospital, and was seen by a cardiologist who then ordered for a repeat Echo, scan, and all other tests done previously at St. Charles and Westminster.

Screenshot from heart.org

On the 4th of May, it was confirmed that I have ASD (Secundum), a congenital heart defect. I’ve had it all my life and for some reasons the Lord kept it hidden. Dr Turner, the cardiologist assigned to look at my case, explained that it’s normal for people with ASD to have their condition undetected; some would only discover it in their 50s, or sometimes in their 60s, or even 70s. And in my case, the only symptom is palpitations but it appears that the hole in between my left and right atrium is big; that the right atrium is significantly enlarged therefore it’s more likely I would have to go through an open heart rather than a minor surgery. She went on to explain that if the defect remain untreated, it will shorten my life span from heart failure, or high blood pressure, or pulmonary hypertension. Jared and I felt like a ton of brick was dropped in our heads and we left the hospital with the prospect of myself having to go through an open heart surgery. Dr Turner also explained that the large unrepaired ASD may sometimes lead to heart failure during pregnancy or after giving birth; that had I gotten pregnant, there is a risk of stroke during pregnancy, or even death simply because child-bearing/child-birth is too taxing on the heart. It was such a huge revelation and likewise an encouragement to finally understand the reason why the Lord hasn’t given us children. What seemed like a curse back then (with the failure to produce an increase through the ICSI-fertility treatments we’ve had), is actually a blessing! I realised that God was indeed protecting us by withholding the very thing Jared and I so desperately wanted – a child! This passage came to mind as Dr Turner was talking to us, “He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11 (KJV)

We immediately shared the diagnosis with both sides of the family; some of Jared’s family asked questions like, ‘when was the last time I had a heart test’, or ‘if my parents or anyone in my family had known about my heart defect’. And of course, they expressed some of their concerns and assured us of their prayers and support. Just told them I didn’t know, neither my parents nor anyone in my family did have any idea about it. And because I hadn’t checked my medical records prior, all I could say to them was, “I had some test done in Japan in early or mid-90s and in the Philippines probably in 97-98 but I wasn’t too sure.” But after checking all my records the following day, it appeared that Echo & ECG was done along with genetic and stress test at St. Mary’s Hospital back in 2007 and all the results came out clear (it was done prior to one of the ICSI treatments we’ve had). I felt like kicking myself for not having an annual heart check up but then I realised it was all providential. I never thought I got a heart defect because I’ve always been very been active, and healthy (or so I thought), and I run 2-3x a week, do cycling, weight lifting, pilates and all of that. Also, it’s worth mentioning that I was under a tremendous amount of stress when I had my first palpitations in January but my heart ailment came to light through that challenging circumstance. The perfect scripture verse for this is Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”

A few weeks after the first meeting with Dr Turner, I was informed that the team of cardiologists (between 10-15 of them) at Royal Brompton Hospital have had the chance to review my case and they all agreed that my heart defect can be corrected by a minor and not an open heart surgery. Then I had another meeting with a consultant, Dr. Kempny, after it was confirmed that the operation will take place on August 8. He explained everything (with an image of the heart with ASD on his desktop); that in my case the hole was very small for many years therefore I was free of any symptoms and the defect didn’t appear in ECG or any heart test results done earlier on. But the ageing process caused the hole to increase in size and the right ventricle is now significantly enlarged. He showed us a sample of the device, and explained the process of the operation — a TOE (transesophageal echocardiogram) will be conducted first, then through an incision in the groin the device will be inserted to the heart, and it will be opened and released to fill the hole in between the left and right atrium.

That’s me holding the sample of the device (made of nickel and titanium) that’s used for the ‘Transcatherer ASD closure.’ I was terrified when I heard that there’s a risk for this disc to be dislodged within an hour after surgery. If it did, it would end up either in the right ventricle, or worst yet, in the lungs.

After the meeting with Dr. Kempny, I became aware of the risks involved; that there is a small chance that the surgical team might found the hole too big for this procedure, so they’ll just wake me up and send me home. After which an open heart surgery will be scheduled at a later date. He also explained that one of the risks is that, after the device is placed, it may dislodge because the heart tissues around the hole is floppy (which happens 2 in 100 cases). If this happens they have to try to retrieve the device, but it may be difficult to withdraw it fully back into the sheath. In which case an open heart operation is required to remove the device, and the hole would be closed at the same time by the normal surgical method. And that was my biggest concern simply because the prospect of going through an open heart surgery is simply terrifying. But I fervently prayed that God will provide the best cardiologist to perform the surgery and that there will be no complications. And thank God, He has indeed answered my prayers!

With Dr Michael Rigby before the surgery.

So on the 7th of August I was admitted to Royal Brompton Hospital; they did run all types of pre-assessment tests and then Dr.Rigby came to see me. Jared and I had a wonderful time chatting with him and he answered all of our questions. He’s such a very gentle, caring, kind and sweet man. He told us that he’s one of the pioneers in this procedure (and been doing it since 1991), and that after looking at my medical records he doesn’t think there will be any complications. I asked him if he had any patient who had a stroke during the surgery and he said that he never had any. The reason I asked was simply because I remember Dr Kempny mentioned about a risk of stroke during surgery. Dr. Rigby explained that he would not proceed with the operation if he thinks the device will cause any complications.

Anyhow, I was prepared for the worst but continued to trust the Lord to grant healing mercies. And God has certainly used Dr Rigby to bring a sense of peace, trust and security before the surgical procedure. After he left the room Jared said, “What a very nice man; such a gentle soul and his countenance, the way he talks reminds me so much of Vic!” (Vic is a good friend of ours who died a couple of months ago) Surprisingly, Jared thought the very same thing I had in mind while talking with Dr. Rigby — he really did remind us of Vic.

Jared left the hospital that night when visiting hours ended, and it was quite strange being alone, confined in a hospital bed for the very first time! I’ve never had a surgery nor have been confined in a hospital until that day. I hardly get sick and never even had been to the A&E to see a DR except when I had to accompany someone who needs an immediate medical attention. Therefore it was rather unusual to find myself in a hospital bed, and I had a hard time going to sleep that night. Providentially, when I opened Youtube to watch something (I often watch a documentary to put myself to sleep), the very first video that appeared was that of Bro Ronald Lawrence. I’ve put it on, closed my eyes and listened to his sermon on ‘Compassion.’ I have to admit it did put me to sleep but when I woke up, the passage that Bro. Lawrence quoted was on top of my head. I listened to the sermon all over again and finished it before I tried to get more sleep.

Before I share what happened on the day of the surgery, let me just say that I’ve always been conscious of my mortality because of my experience of losing some of my loved ones early on in life (from aged 9-15 I’ve lost my grandparents on both sides of the family; my father, and one of my childhood best friends and neighbour, Adela). Anyhow, from the day I received my diagnosis on May 3rd till the day of my surgery on August 8th, it sure did occur to me so many times on different occasions that the operation might not be successful but I had peace about it. I’ve put my trust in the Lord, the giver of life — the One who upholds everything. But at the same time, not knowing what tomorrow brings, I convinced Jared that we both needed to update our ‘last will.’ And for several weeks prior to my surgery I’ve made handwritten letters to my siblings, nephews, nieces, other people close to my heart. And I’ve also had all my heirloom pieces labeled with clear instructions to Jared and my sister on what they need to do. (You may be asking, “what? you did all of that?” 🙂 ) Yes, I sure did! Really, I’m just very practical and thought it’s wise to prepare myself and get Jared to also be prepared for the worst. So during our afternoon walks at the park Jared and I would discuss these things — my wishes, every details like funeral arrangement, instructions on getting re-married, everything. Nothing was left unsaid. Both Jared and I would sometimes discuss these things over the years but before my surgery, I wanted to make everything clear and didn’t want him to be guessing on anything I want done (same with Jared, he made known to me many years ago what his wishes are in case he predeceased me). Likewise, I sent a very long message (via Messenger) to my siblings just to prepare them for the worst. I didn’t want anyone asking, “what did Elna want?”

I spent countless hours writing letters, sorting out documents, personal belongings and everything. And while going through some of my heirloom pieces, there were moments when I was overcome with emotions. Loads of memories came flooding through my mind like when I saw the set of earrings my mother wore on her 75th birthday party. There were tears of joy and sadness being reminded of loved ones who had gone before me, and at the same time, for those I was going to leave behind. I told Jared I realised even back in my early teens when I lost my father that one of the reasons people are afraid of death is because this is the only world we had known and are familiar with so a journey into the unknown can be a frightening thought. As for myself, I told him that even with the assurance of eternal life and all of God’s promises, the ‘after life’ is a rather daunting thought to ponder on but I got no fears about it. The Lord has simply given me peace about it all. But for others, especially to those who do not have Christ in their lives and have no assurance of eternal life, death must be a pretty scary thing to consider.

You know how people say that those who are dying have premonitions about it? Well, it did cross my mind on several occasions and when I was overwhelmed with self-defeating thoughts while preparing for the surgery, I was always reminded of Psalm 23. I often told Jared that having witnessed both my mom and dad took their last breath had given me confidence to say that death and dying might be a lonely journey to take because he (or no one) can usher me into the next life, but it is not something I am afraid of (I’ve shared my deepest thoughts about death and dying in this post years ago).

Even after I received the diagnosis I already claimed that the Lord will bring healing and restore my health but I went into OR all prepared for the worst. Jared and I both said everything there is to say to each other before I went into surgery. Told him that when they put me to sleep on the operating table, I may find myself waking up in the bosom of Jesus, and I am ready for it. That I am prepared to give an account of my life on earth when I finally meet my Creator. And Jared has shown so much strength through it all even though he had a tough time dealing with the prospect of losing me. He has devoted much of his time, energy and other resources not just before, but more so now after surgery, in making sure I am well taken care of.

With Dr Rigby and Lucy after the surgery. Of all the nurses at the Paul Wood Ward, Lucy had been the most helpful. God did put me in just the right place at just the right time with just the right doctor and nurse to provide for a specific need.

So on August 8th at around 11AM I went into surgery that lasted for an hour and forty five minutes, and I woke up at the recovery room thanking God that I was alive. All I remember before I dozed off was the anaesthesiologist telling me that in less than 10 seconds I’ll be asleep. As the nurse put the oxygen mask on me, I said a prayer and with a humble heart and a face turned toward the Throne of Grace there was peace and joy deep within as I dozed off for the surgical procedure.

About four hours after surgery, another cardiologist (forgot her name) came to do a scan of my heart and it was a relief to know that everything was fine. The following day while speaking with one of the ladies who had the same surgery I had, I realised that the Lord has certainly protected me. Sophie, one of the patients I met the day before (only 40 years old but already gone through 3 open heart surgery, and had the same procedure I had) told me that she found out there’s a leakage in the device and she may have to go through another surgery. I came to a realisation when I saw the scar on her chest that it could very well have happened to me — that if my heart condition had been discovered earlier on, I’d have had an open heart surgery like she did. Or if the disc had dislodged, or leakage, or had I gotten pregnant after all the ICSI treatments we’ve had, it may very well have cost my life. So many thoughts came flooding through my mind after I spoke with Sophie but through it all one thing was certain — that God is truly wise, and He knows what He is doing. I praise God that I’ve meet Sophie and other patients who got the same heart defect I got; that He spoke to me through their circumstance. And it made me realise and truly appreciate the fact that everything happens for a reason. God has not only provided one of the best heart hospitals in the world, but also one of top cardiac surgeons and the best team of doctors to perform my surgery. I realised that God orchestrated it all.

Before I was discharged I’ve gone through several test and it was confirmed that the surgery was successful. That the device is in the right place, the blood is pumping as normal but the right atrium is still significantly enlarged as expected. But Dr Rigby explained that the heart will remodel itself — the disc will eventually be covered by the heart tissues; the heart will get back to its normal size, and the other tiny hole will close itself. But even if it didn’t, he said, it’s normal for some people to even have up to 5 tiny holes in the heart that won’t cause any problem. Hearing all of these from Dr. Rigby was quite comforting and reassuring. 

I had a heart monitor after the surgery till shortly before I was discharged from the hospital. L-R top to bottom: Jared took this photo after surgery with all the different device connected to my body; the nurse did put a mark on both of my feet; apparently in case something happens during surgery the doctors can easily find my pulse; the incision where the device went through; best photo after surgery haha; my right hand w the heart monitor, and lastly, the wires connected to the heart monitor and removed from my chest before I went home. Oh and we forgot to take pics of the food I had; didn’t eat any of the food served at the hospital because Jared ordered my meals from nearby restaurants.

God has been so gracious in giving me a new lease of life, and I truly feel like a brand new self (I guess it’s the consciousness that my heart has been fixed). Having a disc in my heart doesn’t make much any difference right now other than being conscious that I’ve got this foreign object in my heart. I am on a blood thinner medication for the next six months to prevent any risk of blood clot. It is humbling, really, His Word, the reassuring voice of God deep within me. It lifts me up. I found myself praising and worshiping Him on the way to the OR and while being prepped for the surgery, instead of wallowing in the pit of fear or self-defeating thoughts. And even with the prospect of dying during the operation, I had peace about it all.

I wanna share this scripture verse that I pondered on before the surgery: Lamentations 3:22-23 “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.” This is the text quoted by Bro. Lawrence on a sermon I listened to the night before the surgery and the one I carried with me to the OR.

 Also, the hymn “Sovereign Ruler of the Skies” (by the English Baptist pastor and hymn writer John Ryland, 1753–1825) was in my heart as I was being wheeled into OR. The hymn, particularly these words, truly spoke to my soul:

He that formed me in the womb, He shall guide me to the tomb; All my times shall ever be, Ordered by His wise decree.

Indeed, our time is in His hands. God works in wonderful, mysterious ways. And it’s true that He uses the circumstances in our lives to draw us ever closer to Him.

My heart is overflowing with joy and gratitude.

I pray and hope that my story will encourage and bless others. 

Some of the cards I made and sent out to Dr Rigby, Lucy, and others. Many more to be done this week. So grateful to my family and friends for their love — all their kind thoughts, prayers and support.

Note: Cover photo is a handmade card by a very dear friend of mine, Arlene Custock, my prayer partner. It arrived a couple of days after my surgery.