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

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by Deborah Daw Heffernan

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It happened without warning. She was thin and fit, ate all her vegetables, never touched a cigarette. There was no family history of heart disease. Yet somehow, at the age of forty-four and in the middle of her weekly yoga class, Deborah Heffernan felt her heart explode. After emergency surgery and a flood of complications, she was left with half a functioning

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It happened without warning. She was thin and fit, ate all her vegetables, never touched a cigarette. There was no family history of heart disease. Yet somehow, at the age of forty-four and in the middle of her weekly yoga class, Deborah Heffernan felt her heart explode. After emergency surgery and a flood of complications, she was left with half a functioning heart, a defibrillator under her skin, and the looming prospect of a transplant.

An Arrow Through the Heart is the unflinching chronicle of that first -- and, potentially, last -- year after Deborah's near death. It is a story of raw emotions -- from childlike bewilderment to despair to jubilation -- that followed her return to the world, of "finding meaning everywhere, like Easter eggs." Anchored by the fierce love of her husband, and by their two families, who set aside their differences to rally around her, Deborah learned to do simple things all over again. One breath at a time, she regained the strength to climb a flight of stairs, to walk around the block, even to resume her yoga -- always knowing that a deadly arrhythmia might cause "the box" in her chest to fire. Amazingly, five years later, she has not yet needed the heart transplant doctors once predicted she would need within two.

Of course, the heart is more than a muscle, and this is a story about healing the soul as well as the body. Never trusting that she'd wake to see the next morning, Deborah found miracles in every moment -- in the tiny green leaves of a sapling, in the ice floes that signaled the change of seasons in Maine, even in the eating of a single lemon drop. She used her confinement to explore the Buddhist idea of death in life and to lay to rest old hurts from the past. And ultimately, though her life after the heart attack was severely restricted, she came to feel that it had been immeasurably enlarged.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women, claiming more than half a million lives each year. But, as Deborah writes, "statistics are aerial photographs," and this book gets below the treetops. For fellow cardiac sufferers, it will be a welcome companion on the road to recovery, one of the very few memoirs by women with heart disease. Above all, it is a book about rebounding after catastrophic change, a testament to the unexpected joy that can come from living in a state of impermanence.

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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

“Reads like a gripping suspense novel . . . A moving story in the face of sudden catastrophe; recommended for all health collections.” —Library Journal, starred review
An Arrow Through the Heart is an epiphany for women who mistakenly believe they are immune from the ravages of heart disease. Using her heart as a magnifying glass, Deborah Heffernan provides readers with a window into their souls.” —Mehmet Oz, M.D., television talk-show host, cardiac surgeon, and Vice-Chair and Professor of Surgery at Columbia University
“For anyone who still lives with the illusion that heart disease belongs only to men, An Arrow Through the Heart is a shocking wake-up call. Heffernan takes you to the precipice and lets you stare over the edge of losing it all. From the mundane sweetness of ordinary days to the gut-wrenching emergencies, you go on the roller coaster with a woman who isn’t supposed to be living this life. But she is . . . and what you learn along the way will change you.” —Nancy L. Snyderman, M.D., chief medical editor, NBC News
“A commanding chronicle . . . Unmarred by self-pity, an arresting story that women and men suffering from heart disease will find, well, heartening.” —Kirkus Reviews  
An Arrow Through the Heart is not only a book of hope and inspiration, it is also a journey of spiritual intrigue. The coincidences and synchronicities that the author shares within the pages of her life story hint in such a comforting way that heaven walks with us each step of the way in each moment of our lives. This book is magnificent.” —Caroline Myss, author of Sacred Contracts and Anatomy of the Spirit
“Nail-biting, almost cinematic suspense . . . This is an absorbing book. Well written and informative . . . it has much to offer as a reminder of the value of preparedness and of appreciating each day.” —Booklist
“When one human triumphs against great odds, we are all lifted up. So we are with Deborah Daw Heffernan’s encounter with heart disease. This is a heroine’s journey—the story of one who braved everything, acquired wisdom and meaning, and returned to share with the rest of us.” —Larry Dossey, M.D., author of Healing Beyond the Body and Reinventing Medicine
“Insightful and openly emotional.” —Publishers Weekly
“Reading about catastrophe is always a dilemma: how can you enjoy a book about someone’s physical suffering? But here you follow the example of Heffernan, who enjoys herself in odd, articulate, and hard-won ways. The Dalai Lama is rumored to giggle a lot, and you get the idea that this author wouldn’t hold anyone’s guffaw against them. Sublime humor, that high defense, is on the list of treatments she has picked.” —Elissa Ely, M.D., lecturer on psychiatry, Harvard Medical School Bulletin
“I couldn’t put it down! The truth shown like a torch on every page. There is nothing false, exaggerated or preachy here. . . .  [Heffernan] does not make out her doctors to be Gods who treat her like a mere female child, but [as] experienced experts in a field she didn’t know much about but wants to, who answered her constant questions without condescension and respected and trusted her knowledge of her body. She also describes her doctors as people with very human traits. I would recommend this book to anyone—colleague, friend, or patient. [An] essential book for women . . .  to think deeply about and to re-evaluate your own life for a long time.” —Dixie Mills, M.D., Association of Women Surgeons
“[An Arrow Through the Heart] is as cathartic to read as it must have been to write. Heffernan makes no bones about the fact that part of the reason she wrote the book was to bring awareness to women of the little-known statistic that women are more likely to die of heart failure than anything else. So the book is in part a plea to women to take care of their health, both of the mind and the body, and to understand the warning signs and symptoms of heart attack. . . .  On the flip side the book is as personal a story of a year of someone’s life as you could possibly read. Here is a woman who, in a moment, left the world of airports, cell phones, and meetings for a world where it took all her focus and strength to brush her teeth on her own. She forsook the world before her heart attack for the peaceful, slow-pace life in western Maine she had truly wanted all along. Forced to become mindful of every breath (literally and figuratively), to become almost completely reliant on her husband, family and friends, and to appreciate each day as the day her life could end, Heffernan eloquently describes her transformation to a peaceful, spiritual, and thankful existence.” —

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Product Details

Free Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
0.72(w) x 5.50(h) x 8.50(d)

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Chapter 1

There is a weight on my chest. Right between my breasts, pressing on my breastbone — as though the atmosphere ripped open a shaft from the heavens to me and the sky poured down onto this one spot. Observant, detached, slowing down, breathing carefully, I think with my body.

"I am having a heart attack," I say to Zoe, my yoga teacher.

I am in Cambridge, Massachusetts, lying on my back on Zoe's clean, polished floor looking at white walls and gleaming wooden window frames. The pressure on my chest has become very specific. It is bearing down now and revolving like a vise, cranking my chest tighter and tighter. I feel no pain, just curiosity. It is the alert, still curiosity of an animal at the sound of a footfall in the woods, of a child beckoned by a frightening stranger, of a bird that senses a change in the atmosphere before a storm hits. The pressure, the twisting continues. It is not going away. I am beginning to sweat.

Zoe is bending over me because she's been helping me improve a gentle yoga pose, Reclining Maricyasana. The idea, she says, is that with the shoulders relaxed and arms outstretched receptively, the heart is released and can ascend to radiance. It is one of yoga's warming poses.

But I am cold. I look at my hands. They are marble white. I sluggishly realize that Zoe has helped me sit up; I suddenly feel her small, strong hand supporting my back. Now I have the sensation of cold rivulets coursing down my arms, millions of discrete trickles running from my shoulders, over my elbows, to my wrists. Nausea rises.

"I am having a heart attack," I say again, this time with the calm, clinical finality that comes from absolute knowledge deep within my body.

For only a moment, my mind protests. Give it a minute. It must be a muscle pull. But Zoe does not second-guess me. Instead, she trusts the voice of my body and asks me what I want her to do.

"I want you to call 911. Tell them I need a cardiac team. Tell them to take me to Mount Auburn Hospital. My doctor is Barbara Spivak. I need a cardiologist waiting for me. Something is terribly wrong."

The icy rivers flow to my marble hands. Take charge, take charge, take charge.

The 911 guys lumber in with armfuls of equipment — thundering male steps echoing into a serene white room with three women in tights sprawled on a polished floor. Quickly assessing what is needed, they joke that when they got the call they thought "yoga class" was code for a cult. I laugh. Everything is fine if I can laugh. They would be stern if something were wrong. I am aware of how big they are, how slender my classmates. I am amused by the space men take up and reminded of my husband in the bathroom, obliviously standing in front of the mirror I was using while happily telling me a funny story about his trip to the dump. I like these guys.

They hook me up to machines. They put a tiny pill under my tongue. They ask me how I feel. Not great yet, but better because they are here, though it's harder to look inside my body when they distract me with light bantering. I am feeling happy in this moment. It must be a muscle pull.

I laugh with them and ask, "So, what do you guys think?"

"We think you're a very lucky lady."

Whew. Take two aspirin...

But the biggest one is all business now. He finishes his response gently, firmly.

"You're coming with us to the hospital."

They strap me into a chair and will not let me move by myself. I think they are cute and want to show off how strong they are. I feel cold terror suffuse my body, taking over as the tingling trickles flowing down my arms retreat. Or am I too scared to feel them?

Two men carry me out the door backwards. It is the summer view I had as a girl riding the tailgate of Dad's woody station wagon, the same view I had as a young woman teaching in the Swiss Alps, nauseated from sitting backwards on a train and vowing never to do that again. As they load me into the van, I wave to a child and an old man, reassuring them that everything will be all right. Zoe's face is small and serious on the steps. I thank her and wonder at my self-possession. But I am simply here, in the arms of these funny strong men. Surrendering my independence, I feel a rush of relaxation.

Or am I deciding that I am relaxed when what is actually happening is that my body is failing me? What does that feel like? How would I know?

The men in the front seat are calling in to the hospital. I strain to hear what is said, muffled code words through glass. The big guy is still with me, administering more tests, asking me over and over how I feel. I no longer know. I desperately want to tell him that every test makes me feel better, but it does not, no matter how hard I try to please him. He shows no elation or disappointment. I can't read him. How am I?

I was dying of a massive heart attack, or myocardial infarction (MI). Between my first sensation of pressure and the rescue team's arrival, only ten minutes went by. Those ten minutes — an eternity — saved my life. I relive every second again and again. I think of all the places I could have been instead of within the serene walls of a yoga studio.

I was your typical harried workingwoman, a partner in a small but prominent corporate training company. May 12 had been a Monday like any other — better than most because there was no packed suitcase behind my office door ready to be loaded into the four o'clock cab to Logan Airport, flung into another rental car in the evening darkness, and unzipped in another hotel in another strange city of blinking lights, with highways lacing it like a sneaker. As it happened, a client had called on Friday and switched our meeting to a phone conference later in the week. So on this Monday, instead of flying to Detroit, I was going to my yoga class and sleeping in my own bed next to my husband, the love of my life.

What if, bored and imprisoned in an airline seat a few months before, I hadn't picked up the in-flight magazine and read an article on heart attacks that described many of the symptoms I would experience? What if my Detroit client had not changed our meeting to a phone conference? What if I'd taken that one last call and been sitting in rush-hour traffic instead of in my yoga class focusing on my breathing, deeply attuned to my body?

What if I had reacted to my body's signals with denial and hubris? What if I had not acknowledged death in the moment it visited me?

I would be dead. And if I had died, I would not be here. I would not be looking up the lake at another spring, one year later, from my study in our old house in Maine. I would not be seeing our beloved Mount Washington across the border in New Hampshire, with snow lingering in Tuckerman Ravine like icing on the cake saved for last. I would not be listening to water lapping at the peninsula — each year an exciting new sound after the silence of ice stretched shore to shore during Maine's long winter. I would not be hearing the wind chimes on the northwest corner of the house heralding several days of blue skies and sparkling water. I would not hear the loons or the mourning doves or the tree swallows busily nesting in the fantasy birdhouse, made by friends for our wedding, with a brass heart for a weathervane.

Every day I am aware of my good fortune and regard each moment of life as the exquisite miracle that it is. I am also aware that before IT happened, I had lived each day as best I could — often too intensely, but always fully participating in life. As I write that, I pause. True? I will always wonder what I could have done differently. Did I appreciate life enough? Could I have prevented IT from happening?

With time, I am learning that the physical why is not important. That ride across Cambridge in the rescue vehicle with my burly boyfriends was the beginning of my journey of the heart in both the physical and spiritual sense, because I believe that to heal the body you must heal the spirit. With time, I have been able to see my catastrophic heart attack as the gift that it was.

Copyright © 2002 by Deborah Daw Heffernan

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