Getting to know your heart: one patient's journey to better heart health

Heart patient Shirley Allenbrand.

Every great journey begins with a single step. For Shirley Allenbrand, that first step was a heart screening that prompted an unexpected heart surgery and saved her life.

Shirley Allenbrand is in the business of creating. She's a partner in Ad Astra Development, an Olathe company that designs, develops and builds innovative living and working facilities from the ground floor up. So when she sees a need for change, she acts on it.

Before her 50th birthday, Allenbrand decided to start working with a personal trainer to shed some extra pounds and get in shape.

A friend urged her to meet with a physician for a heart screening first. During a stress test at The University of Kansas Health System, Allenbrand’s physician noticed a spike in her blood pressure and referred her for a cardiac catheterization procedure. During this procedure, cardiologists found an aneurysm in her upper aorta – a 4.9 on a scale with 5 being the highest (and most dangerous) possible rating.

Allenbrand needed surgery right away.

"Doctors told me something as simple as picking up a suitcase could have caused the aneurysm to rupture," she notes.

In March 2005, cardiothoracic surgeons performed a complicated surgery to repair the aneurysm and replace her damaged aortic valve. The surgery was a success, and Allenbrand soon began cardiac rehabilitation and recovery. She found out what steps she needed to take to prevent future aneurysms, and she began learning more about her heart.

"I never cared about my heart 'numbers' before," she said. "I know there are other very active, busy women out there who don’t know theirs either. After my experience, I made a commitment to help women learn these things about their hearts."

I'm just lucky I'm here. The physicians at The University of Kansas Hospital gave me my life. – Shirley Allenbrand

Many people with aneurysms don't know they have them until they erupt, and the survival rate is low at that point. In fact, Allenbrand's health insurance company did not have a system in place to cover her rehabilitation and prevention efforts, because survival is so rare.

Allenbrand credits the leading-edge cardiac care she received from surgeons, physicians and care staff at The University of Kansas Health System with helping her beat the odds. U.S. News & World Report has consistently recognized our cardiology and heart surgery services among the nation's best programs. Here, cardiologists and cardiothoracic surgeons offer the most advanced diagnostics and treatments.

"If I had monitored my heart health numbers, my problems would have been discovered earlier, and my treatment would have been more preventative and less complicated," Allenbrand said. "My story is a success, but I've also learned from this experience the value of knowing your own body, your own heart and taking the right steps to ensure you are personally healthy."

Now Allenbrand is in the best shape she has been in for years. She works with cardiologists through the health system's Cardiac Risk Reduction Clinic, and she shares her story to motivate other women to know their numbers and take action.

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