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

by Deborah Daw Heffernan


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504009218
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 04/21/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 300
Sales rank: 1,323,701
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About 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.

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

Table of Contents






Second Spring


A Note about Organ Donation



Exclusive Author Essay
Heart disease kills one out of every two women, yet only 50 to 70 percent of those fatalities can be attributed to known factors like obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, and so on. I had none of the predictive factors and thought I was safe. Wrong. Almost dead wrong. Like many women, my first sign of heart disease was a heart attack.

My most important lesson from the year I spent recuperating on a lake in western Maine is that you simply cannot separate matters of the heart from the muscle. Writing this book helped me explore those matters -- privately, slowly, building careful, honest sentences as I built up my body to live in this world again. And in the end, although I had written An Arrow Through the Heart to warn other women and save their lives, in the process I saved my own.

I should have anticipated the power of committing thoughts to paper. I should have known that the search for just the right word can unearth truths. In perfecting a sentence that eluded grace, I discovered that my thinking was foggy, that my feelings were not clear yet, often demanding that I return to bed and stare at the ceiling, even sleep, before the truth finally emerged. Sometimes it took days or even months, appearing like skywriting when I least expected it -- in the shower, chopping onions, brushing my teeth.

I should have anticipated this miraculous process because I taught it once in an international boarding school in the Swiss Alps, armed with no other qualifications than a recent college degree and the fact that I was there, scrubbing pots in the kitchen, when the real English teacher resigned. It was a hippy school, with lovely notions of world peace based on educating children of different nations together. But I had no idea what to do with a handful of teenagers of different ages, races, cultures, and abilities whose only commonality was English as their first language. They were a troubled, sullen lot, pawns in international divorces, and I was failing miserably to inspire them, especially Obi, black as the Nigerian night. He was gorgeous, privileged, and the laziest kid I've ever met.

One day in a frustrated fit, I stormed out of the classroom and into the first snow of the season, ordering my charges to follow. We made our way to a boulder at the edge of a field behind the school. Suddenly obedient, they one by one handed their notebooks to me, climbed the boulder, and jumped into the fresh snow. Then I handed their notebooks back and, without brushing any of the snow off, they wrote one sentence about how it felt.

Obi was last. This was the first snow he had ever seen, but he was too cool to admit it. Off he leapt, terror and elation fighting in his face. And then there was the beauty of ebony skin on pure white snow. And his laughter. His incredulity. The tall body emerging from the snow as from a bubble bath, and racing for his notebook. He wrote, "The snow is cold."

And we went from there until, days later, he had pushed and pushed himself to write a sentence that unlocked one feeling, a sentence so beautiful it made me cry and the other kids applaud. I wish I could remember it.

Over that year of miserable adolescence, as those kids wrote their sentences, slowly building them into paragraphs and then whole stories packed with meaning and truth, they found their voices. And so it was with me after my heart attack. Sentence by sentence I put myself back together again. Words saved my life. And perhaps by reading my book, you will save yours or the life of someone you love. (Deborah Daw Heffernan)

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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.