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An Arrow Through the Heart: One Woman's Story of Life, Love, and Surviving a Near-Fatal Heart Attack

An Arrow Through the Heart: One Woman's Story of Life, Love, and Surviving a Near-Fatal Heart Attack

3.0 1
by Deborah Daw Heffernan

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What if, like most women, you were overwhelmed by the struggle to balance work and family? So you did everything to be healthy and stress-free — ate right, kept fit, never smoked, practiced yoga. And what if, out of the blue, your body betrayed you?
Like most American women, Deborah Daw Heffernan worried about breast cancer, not heart


What if, like most women, you were overwhelmed by the struggle to balance work and family? So you did everything to be healthy and stress-free — ate right, kept fit, never smoked, practiced yoga. And what if, out of the blue, your body betrayed you?
Like most American women, Deborah Daw Heffernan worried about breast cancer, not heart disease, the nation's number-one killer of women. Yet on May 12, 1997, Deborah, a slim and health-conscious executive in her mid-forties, was stricken by a near-fatal heart attack in her weekly yoga class. There was no warning and no family history of heart disease. There was only the sudden explosion inside her chest. After emergency surgery and a harrowing string of complications, Deborah faced a long and uncertain recovery, overshadowed by the looming prospect of a heart transplant.
An Arrow Through the Heart is her unflinching, soulful, and surprisingly funny chronicle of that first year — which might easily have been her last. Anchored by the rugged landscape of Maine, by the fierce love of her husband, and by their two estranged families, who dropped everything to rally around her, she learned to do simple things all over again, one breath at a time. Ultimately, it was a year of healing both body and soul, of "finding meaning everywhere, like Easter eggs."
This book is about how illness, oddly enough, can give life back to us. For the tens of thousands with cardiac disease, it will be a welcome companion on the road to recovery. For the rest of us, Deborah offers a powerful testament to the unexpected joy that can come from living in a state of impermanence.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Despite her apparent good health, in May 1997, Heffernan suffered a massive heart attack during a yoga class. Proximity to a Cambridge, Mass., hospital and the swift response of rescue workers saved her initially. Emergency double bypass surgery and the subsequent implantation of a defibrillator has allowed her to survive for the past five years. Surprisingly, Heffernan was relatively young (44), physically fit and a nonsmoker with low cholesterol who adhered to a nutritious diet when her heart failed her. In this insightful and openly emotional account, Heffernan details her illness and the life changes that occurred afterward. Happily married since 1989 to Jack, 13 years older with five grown children, Heffernan saw her relationship with her husband grow even stronger as he became her caregiver during a lengthy convalescence. Heffernan gave up her high-pressure job as a corporate training executive, and she and Jack moved permanently from Cambridge to their peaceful Maine vacation home. The author's enforced period of inactivity forged links with Jack's children, who had formerly been distant from their father's new wife, and she became closer to her sisters. Although her heart has been severely damaged and a transplant may eventually be needed, Heffernan nicely describes how she has found peace of mind and a new pleasure in daily living because of this unexpected brush with death. (May) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
At the age of 44, Heffernan suffered a massive heart attack that resulted in cardiomyopathy and ventricular tachycardia, with only half her heart still functional. Only her quick recognition of her symptoms, prompt medical treatment, and the availability of specialized medical services and personnel saved her life. This engrossing account of her initial battle for survival shows the depths of human emotion and strength in times of crisis, for both the victim and her family. The struggle to make rational medical decisions, overcoming ICU- and medication-induced psychosis, the vital role of family support, and the emotional roller coaster of both patient and family are touchingly documented. The following year of convalescence, moving from beliefs of health to acceptance of disability, is emotively portrayed. Heffernan's fight to regain some quality of life for herself and her family will resonate with all persons dealing with chronic illness and inspire them to find their own blessings in life. A moving story in the face of sudden catastrophe; recommended for all health collections. Janet M. Schneider, James A. Haley Veterans' Hosp., Tampa, FL Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A commanding chronicle of a year in a woman's recovery from an unexpected and near-fatal heart attack. Not only was Deborah Heffernan relatively young, only 44, but she had never smoked, she ate her fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, she maintained a healthy weight, and her family had no history of heart disease. Moreover, she had a loving husband, good friends, and a successful career. But there she was in yoga class, pressure crushing her chest. "I'm having a heart attack," she told her teacher. Within minutes, the EMS was there, transporting her to a hospital and bypass surgery, while her family and friends stood a death watch. Heffernan did not die, but her life and the lives of everyone around her changed as she slowly worked her way back to health, with a defibrillator implanted to monitor every beat of the half a heart she now lived with. Her recovery, from her first hesitant walk from hospital bed to bathroom to a vacation in the Alaskan bush a year later, is described in sections that mirror the change of seasons. It encompasses longer and longer walks in the Maine woods, yoga, massage, and psychotherapy for her and her husband. It also involves a long and sometimes painful exploration of why, given her remarkably healthy lifestyle. Long years of hidden stress, going back to her mother's death 30 years before and culminating in a job that found her living out of suitcases was her answer. The damage will never be undone, and a heart transplant may be in her future. On the positive side, Heffernan's medical crisis mended years of strained family relationships, and she has learned to find significance in even the most casual encounters. Her personal tale is interspersed withsalient information about heart disease, including the fact that it is the number one cause of death among American women, more than all cancers combined. Unmarred by self-pity, an arresting story that women and men suffering from heart disease will find, well, heartening.
From the Publisher
Caroline Myss Author of Sacred Contracts Not only a book of hope and inspiration, it is also a journey of spiritual intrigue....This book is magnificent.

Mehmet Oz, M.D. Director of the Cardiovascular Institute at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center and author of Healing from the Heart Using her heart as a magnifying glass, Deborah Heffernan provides readers with a window into their souls.

Product Details

Free Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.66(h) x 1.07(d)

Read an Excerpt


Statistics are aerial photographs. The photographer in the airplane circling high above us looks for the big picture -- where land gives way to water, where mountains rise, where the desert begins. There is nothing to distract him from the landscape, no movement telling of life below the treetops. Yet we are there nonetheless, waving, waving, each with our own story, each with a heart whose beat gives us life and makes love a possibility.

The aerial photograph of cardiovascular disease shows that sixty million Americans suffer from it. That's one out of every five, making it the number-one killer in this country. Cardiovascular disease is also the number-one killer of American women, afflicting one out of every two. Each year 2.5 million women are hospitalized for it and about five-hundred thousand die. That's more women than died from all other causes combined, including lung, breast, ovarian, and uterine cancer.

Unlike men, most women who die suddenly from heart attacks don't have any previous symptoms. And even though more women die of cardiovascular disease than men, many doctors still do not prepare women to recognize the signals of a heart attack -- certainly not young women in good health with no risk factors. This is tragic. According to a 2001 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the leading causes of death among women ages twenty-five to forty-four, heart disease is significantly ahead of breast cancer, and ranks second only to accidents and other adverse events.

When death came for me on May 12, 1997, I was a healthy forty-four-year-old with no family history of heart disease; in fact, one grand-aunt had lived to a hundred and six. My annual physical had just confirmed my usual low blood pressure and low cholesterol. I'd never touched a cigarette, let alone smoked one. I was slender, exercised regularly, and ate all my vegetables. I even made whole-grain bread each week. I was certainly not a candidate for a massive, near-fatal heart attack, emergency open-heart surgery, and ventricular tachycardia (a deadly malfunctioning of the heart's electrical system). Neither would I have believed that I could be unconscious for eight days of my life. And I certainly never dreamed that a heart transplant would be in my future. I was in my prime, assuming my American birthright in grabbing cash from the ATM machine, throwing toothpaste and tomato paste into the market basket, and driving to work. Besides, I am a woman; I thought that in the matter of my heart's health, my gender would protect me. Wrong.

A year and a half after my heart attack and surgery, on a flight to Anchorage, I met a cardiac surgeon from the Southwest who was recovering from open-heart surgery himself. I told him that I was drafting this book, and he said, "Even as a doctor who's prepared and operated on hundreds of patients in all circumstances, I had no idea what I was facing. Write your book for all of us. We need to understand more about what the patient goes through, from the patient's point of view."

And so I did. But my book is as much for families, friends, and people who deliver hospital breakfast trays and home heating oil as it is for patients and medical professionals. Matters of the heart cannot be separated from the muscle, I've discovered, so every person has an impact on the cardiac patient, who now believes that every moment is her last.

Each year nearly eleven times more women die of heart disease or stroke than of breast cancer. Yet there are virtually no memoirs about cardiovascular disease on the bookshelves. During my critical first year after being discharged from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, I found only a couple of books that offered the companionship and guidance I craved. There are plenty of books about fighting heart disease with diet and exercise, meditation and medication, but I wanted to know: Is anyone in the universe like me -- young, fit, female, shocked? What did you feel like? What happened to your life, to the lives of others close to you? How did you change, or did you not? In the end, I've written the book that I searched for about heart disease. But it is also a book about facing catastrophic change of any kind and doing the work required for true healing.

As happens with most people who find themselves suddenly in what writer Susan Sontag calls the "kingdom of the ill," I grappled with cosmic questions after I had sought medical explanations. Why me? Why my heart and not my toe? What could I have done to prevent this? Who is at fault? My year's stay in the monastery of illness -- a peculiar place of both confinement and release -- took me deep into my past and I discovered that, as intuitive healer Caroline Myss writes, "Your biography can become your biology." While my biography is certainly not yours, perhaps like me you gain more from being swept up by the story of a real person's life than by a river of statistics.

The first year following a heart attack is the most critical period of recovery, a time when in closing your eyes at night, you can't trust that you will be there in the morning. Doctors struggle to prepare patients for this uncertainty, but there is no experience like personal experience. I have stuck strictly to that year and tried to be unflinching in my descriptions of the devastation, terror, joy, setbacks, insights, and unbelievable humor that accompany dying and returning to life again.

So come with me through five seasons in western Maine, where I recovered my body and soul. The first spring lasted only a month, yet I dwell on it the longest because after being given back life I observed it as fixedly as a child observes a bug. As the seasons progress, my descriptions of them shorten, reflecting my gradual return to healthy-people time -- a time when a lemon drop no longer demands full attention until completely dissolved. We cannot meet our worldly responsibilities, which I did not for more than a year, while paying rapt attention to every raindrop on the windshield.

Simply by slowing us down, disease can tell us what our souls need to know. It becomes a diagnostic tool for the spirit. Difficult as that year was, I miss the languorous pace enforced by confinement. Driving thirty miles an hour no longer feels like speeding to me; I make lists of things to do and feel a tug if the day doesn't give me time to complete them; I occasionally walk by a flower without peering into it. But I doubt I will ever be truly inattentive again. I emerged from that monastery seeing my broken heart in a whole new light -- as a metaphor. It's ironic that a devastating attack on my literal heart brought healing to my spirit-heart. I now understand that healing and curing are two very different things.

My doctors told me that by the time I reached the one-year anniversary of my heart attack I would feel strong and confident again. And they were right. But I didn't believe them for even one minute, not when the act of eating a chunk of fruit took centuries as the sun rose in a chilly hospital room.

Ultimately, this book is not about heart disease at all, but about digesting that fruit.

Copyright © 2002 by Deborah Daw Heffernan

Meet the Author

Deborah Daw Heffernan is a graduate of Georgetown and Harvard Universities. She has worked as a teacher in Switzerland, an associate dean at Boston University, and a freelance writer. For fourteen years she was vice president of a leading Boston-based corporate training/consulting firm—until a near-fatal heart attack changed her life forever. She lives with her husband, Jack, on a small lake in Maine.

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Arrow Through the Heart: One Woman's Story of Life, Love, and Surviving a Near-Fatal Heart Attack 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This story matches my personal experience with the Heart- I had the same medical problem one year ago and coping with emotions and continuing my journey back from Cardic Arrest. Loved the book and recommend for all heart patients to read- very informitive about how other people cope with a new life style.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Every person who either is taking care of a loved one, or ministers to patients; doctors, nurses, health care workers, should read this book so they can know how the patient feels, why certain things happen, and how the caretaker can reach into and touch the problem. No one has explained this sector of health and life before.