Monica Cook

I might be 44, but I think of myself as younger than my age. Weeks after having strep throat, I still just didn't feel right. I had no energy and I could feel my heartbeat go from slow to extremely fast. At times, I had an overwhelming feeling of tightness in my chest that made it difficult to breathe, almost like I was being strangled. This feeling would sometimes last for hours and there were times I even fainted without warning.

I told myself it would pass - I was too young for heart problems. I continued working, leading the music team at my church and coaching high school softball. All the while, I was wondering if I would pass out again or be in too much pain to drive home. Even more distressing, my first grandbaby was just weeks old and I worried I wouldn't be around to see her grow up or wouldn't be able to run and play with her.

I made an appointment with a cardiologist in my hometown. I was crushed when he told me the strep virus has permanently damaged my heart and I would have to be on medication for the rest of my life. To make it worse, the medication could make me depressed, gain weight and have insomnia and would only manage the symptoms, not cure the condition.

Fortunately, the symptoms got worse. I say "fortunately" because that is what forced me to get a second opinion. I could not accept I had to live my life in pain, depressed, tired, overweight and taking pills every day.

At the suggestion of family members, I made an appointment with Sam Butman, M.D., an interventional cardiologist at the Heart & Vascular Center of Northern Arizona in Cottonwood. Immediately, I knew my decision to see Dr. Butman was right.

After some tests, the next stop was the Cardiac Catheterization Lab at Verde Valley Medical Center. Dr. Butman walked in and asked me, “Are you ready to dance?” His ability to joke and talk with calmed my fears and let me know I was in good hands.

After the procedure, Dr. Butman said he saw something irregular in the right ventricular of my heart. He made an appointment for me to see his colleague, heart rhythm specialist Lynn Otto, M.D., in Flagstaff.

Dr. Otto ordered an MRI of my heart, which showed I had a genetic heart condition called arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia.

Dr. Otto was wonderful. She was kind, soft spoken and explained things perfectly. She said it wasn’t a matter of if my heart would stop beating, but when.

I needed to have an internal cardiac defibrillator placed on my heart. The device would shock my heart back to life when it stopped beating. I was scheduled for the procedure at 5 a.m. the next morning.

The Cardiac Catheterization Lab at Flagstaff Medical Center was amazing. Never have I been surrounded by such caring and knowledgeable hospital staff. They held my hand and let me know that they would be with me every step of the way. I loved how protective they were of me.

Three hours later, I was in my hospital room surrounded by family. The next day I went home to continue recovering. Six weeks later, Dr. Ott cleared me to play the guitar and sing at church again. She also said it was okay to go back to work and get back on the field coaching softball.

It is odd knowing my heart could stop at any time. It is odd knowing I have a device in my chest that will shock me back to life when, not if, my heart stops. It is odd knowing at age 44 I have a cardiologist.

What matters is I no longer have to live in pain and in fear. And in addition to my family, I have a new “family” of physicians who saved my life. I went from being depressed about having a heart condition to feeling extremely blessed to have found Dr. Butman and Dr. Otto. I thank God every day that they were there for me. He used them to save my life.

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