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A Total Change of Heart

"It's just a part of who I am," says Vanya Carlson of the automatic internal cardiac defibrillator (aka Pacemaker) that has been keeping her heart on track for eight years.

Vanya is one of a growing number of relatively young women who has long QT syndrome--a potentially fatal cardiac disorder that results in electrical misfirings of the heart. It was when she mysteriously passed out for the second time in several years that Vanya followed a medical trail of discovery.

"I passed out on my treadmill - I was 27 years old and was losing weight after my second child," says Vanya, who is now 35 and the mother of three boys.

Once she regained her footing, Vanya felt fine and shrugged it off as a one-time event. Her co-workers, however, wouldn't ignore the episode.

"They said I had to see my doctor," remembers Vanya, who was working at Rogue Valley Medical Center at the time. Her primary care physician immediately asked if there had been any previous losses of consciousness.

"I remembered I had passed out years before when I was just sitting in a car," Vanya relates. "He was on it right away and told me there was a syndrome showing up more frequently in young women--an abnormal beat of the heart's electrical system called long QT syndrome."

The information startled Vanya, who had told her former doctor of the first passing out and had been reassured it was due to stress. The conflicting medical input was a breakthrough.

"So many women are told by doctors that their symptoms are the result of stress, PMS or hypochondria," she says. "But I've learned that you have to listen to your body and you have to find a doctor that will listen to you."

Vanya was sent straight to a cardiologist who specializes in electrical cardiac disorders at Cardiology Consultants in Medford. After a battery of tests, she was put on a beta blocker and was closely monitored. Meanwhile, she kept running until one afternoon when she couldn't catch her breath and finally checked into the emergency room.

"The alarms went off--my heart rate was at 240 beats a minute," says Vanya. "There were about 10 people standing around me and I asked what was going on. They were shocked I was still conscious I think it was because I was in good shape."

She was put under and paddles were used to regulate her heartbeat. Upon awakening, this strong soul simply asked if she was ready to go home.

"They just laughed and sent me to CCU," Vanya says. That's when treatment in earnest began. After an ablation where several extra electrical pathways to her heart were cauterized, the cardiologist leveled with her.

"He told me there were too many pathways and the next step would be to implant a pacemaker," says Vanya, who is now the event coordination manager at Lithia Motors.

It took years of tweaking her medications and defibrillator before Vanya felt like she was in control of her body. And there are still moments when it's not easy - the meds make her tired, the defibrillator has sent internal shocks through her body, she suffered congestive heart failure after the birth of her third child and was stricken by a heart attack about two and a half years ago.

"I'll be honest - I've had moments of "woe is me," but I never was angry about it," says Vanya, who feels badly for the fear her sons must live with. "I guess when you have three kids and a job you just have to keep going. Really, I believe the reason I went through it is to share my story."

To build awareness about the importance of heart health, body awareness, finding the right doctor and funding research, Vanya will be the featured speaker at the Feb. 6 Go Red for Women luncheon, which Joy Magazine is a proud sponsor.

A Total Change of Heart