After surviving cancer in her teens, Susan Strong spent her life thinking she’d be lucky to reach 50. Strong reached that milestone birthday in October, 2015 and another milestone one month later: the one year anniversary of her aortic valve replacement. She laughs, calling it her “valversary, or maybe TAVRsary” –a play on the name of the new valve replacement procedure she underwent: TAVR (transcatheter aortic valve replacement).
“This past year has been about making meaning out of this life I’ve been given,” she said. “So many people helped and encouraged me through these times, and I want to pay it forward, and hopefully make a difference for others.”
Strong, an avid hiker with a focus on healthy lifestyle, was surprised to hear she needed heart surgery last year at age 49.
But the radiation therapy she had received more than three decades earlier to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma had taken its toll: Strong had developed severe aortic stenosis and regurgitation. Her doctors explained that her aortic valve was unable to fully open, restricting the blood flow out of the heart. In addition, her valve was leaky. When the aortic valve fails to close properly, blood flows backwards into the left ventricle making the heart work harder.
“I was completely shocked when I found out I was going to need a valve replacement,” Strong says.
Strong has taken her story to the public to help others in similar situations. She works with small groups and individuals to offer support to those who wish to eat healthier, exercise more regularly and make other positive changes.
And as an American Heart Association Patient Ambassador, she hopes to encourage others coping with heart disease.
“When you can transform suffering into something of value that helps other people, you give meaning and purpose to your experience” Strong says. “You’re able to look back and embrace every part of your life and see that something good and beautiful can come of it.”
“Just to know your life isn’t over with your diagnosis—the encouragement that gives is huge,” she says. “That’s what I want to give to others. Being an ambassador through the American Heart Association is a big part of that. I want to take what I’ve been through and encourage people and give them hope that they can live a full life.”
Connect with Susan Strong and other AHA heart valve ambassadors, as well as others living with heart valve disease and those who care for and support them, on the American Heart Association’s Support Network (registration required). http://blog.heart.org/strong-to-celebrate-her-valversary
For support, information, and resources, check out the American Heart Association Support Network: http://supportnetwork.heart.org