ATLANTA, Kan. — Wanda Headrick knew from the time she was a child that she had a murmur in her heart.
Her mother had told her.
But the 61-year-old nurse, who works in the neuro intensive care unit at Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis, had always been healthy, and the murmur had never slowed her down. She had been able to hear it only for the past couple of years.
Earlier this year, Headrick signed up for a screening as part of Via Christi’s HealthierYou program, which gives employees a $30 monthly discount on health insurance premiums to those who take steps to improve their health.
“I had felt like I was completely healthy,” Headrick said, noting that in 25 years of nursing, she’d only had the flu once.
Her primary care physician listened to her heart and mentioned the murmur. He asked if she’d undergo a test that’s like a sonogram of your heart. She said she would like to get a baseline.
She knew enough about what she was seeing on the screen that something was wrong. The nurse didn’t say anything to panic Headrick, but she called the doctor immediately, Headrick said.
A few days later, she got a call from her doctor. He was concerned.
“I thought ‘What is the big deal? I feel perfectly fine,’ ”Headrick said.
Headrick needed to see a cardiologist. She chose Ravi Bajaj, whom she had known when she worked at Wesley Medical Center.
They hadn’t seen each other for years.
“ ‘It’s so strange to see you in this setting,’ ” Headrick said Bajaj told her.
He reached over and grabbed her hand. He explained to her husband, Gary, that most aortic valves have three cuspids. The doctor said special people had only two.
“He turned to my husband and said ‘Do you know how special your wife is?’ ” Headrick recalled.
Headrick also had an aortic aneurysm, which can cause sudden death.
She would need a heart valve replacement within 18 months.
“I was in total denial,” Headrick said. “It wasn’t like I was huffing and puffing.”
Headrick said Bajaj presented her with several options and told her she could wait six months to see how things were progressing.
She researched her options.
Gary Headrick told her he thought she should have the surgery while she was still healthy instead of waiting.
On Nov. 19, Headrick went in for a heart catheter and afterward, the doctor told her that her valve would need to be replaced within a month. She’d gone from an 18-month timeline to 30 days.
“All my other vessels were good,” Headrick said. “My heart muscle was good.”
She asked for opinions around the hospital.
“Working at the hospital, I had wonderful resources,” Headrick said. “People were telling me there was a pretty fine line where the tipping point occurs.”
So on Dec. 10, Headrick underwent open heart surgery and had her aortic valve replaced with a tissue valve instead of a mechanical one. The procedure uses the lining of a cow’s heart. She chose a tissue valve replacement because it wouldn’t require her to be on Coumadin, a blood thinner, the rest of her life.
Tissue valve replacements don’t last as long as mechanical ones, Headrick said, but while considering her options, Headrick met a patient who had undergone a tissue valve replacement 33 years before and was doing fine.
Headrick owns Flinthills Aromatherapy and believes in the benefits of both modern and natural medicine. Her family raises its own beef and eats vegetables they cull from the earth.
She didn’t like the idea of being on medicine the rest of her life.
The surgery was about five hours. She doesn’t remember much of that first day.
Except this: When she woke up, she no longer had pain in her left shoulder.
“I had always had left shoulder pain – I want to say for close to 20 years, maybe not that long,” she said. “That pain has been gone since then.”
Headrick will be off work for at least three months.
Gary Headrick is relieved his wife opted to have the surgery sooner than later.
“She wanted to put it off,” he said, “but we got to talking, and we decided 20 years of quality life would be better.”
Headrick says the health screening – which other employers such as Sedgwick County are encouraging employees to get to better manage their health — did more than save her money.
It saved her life.