By Susan Shinn
For The Salisbury Post
This morning, on the holiest of days for Christians, Teresa Casmus will be sitting in her pew at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, surrounded by her husband, son, parents and huge extended family. This is most likely the best Easter Sunday morning Teresa has ever experienced.
He is risen, indeed.
Teresa bears witness to her own story of new life.
In January 2009, Teresa made a New Year’s resolution to get back in shape.
“I generally always felt bad,” says Teresa, now 44, who’s always been naturally thin.
Her husband, Bob, told her she was probably just getting older.
Teresa resolved to turn over a new leaf and get to the Y as much as she could. She also scheduled an appointment with her gynecologist, Dr. Jim Murphy, because she had not been seeing her doctors regularly.
A medical student listened to her heart, and detected a pretty significant murmur.
Yes, Teresa said, she was aware of that. She’d had Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever at age 15, and was diagnosed then with mitrovalve prolapse, which means her heart wasn’t pumping as it should. At the time, she was told patients could live with this condition and never need any sort of treatment.
She sloughed off the medical student.
Murphy referred her to her primary care physician. Dr. Willard Thompson.
“Would you believe what that medical student told me?” an exasperated Teresa reported.
Thompson listened to her heart, too.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“I’m tired,” was her response.
What working mother is not tired at the end of the day? Teresa reasoned.
Thompson did an echocardiogram, and told her it was time to see a cardiologist.
She met with a cardiologist at NorthEast Medical Center.
He listened to her heart once, then again. Teresa thought it was odd.
He prescribed an ACE inhibitor, which took pressure off her heart valve.
Almost immediately, Teresa felt like her world went from black and white to color.
That feeling lasted about three months. Then, by the end of the day, she was dragging. For the past 22 years, Teresa has been a pharmacist at The Medicine Shoppe on West Innes Street, so she asked her cardiologist if she could double the low dose of medication.
For a while.
In the meantime, Teresa decided to start training for a 5K. She was determined that if she maintained a healthy lifestyle, she could beat this condition.
She was wrong.
The Sacred Heart 5K took place in October 2009.
“While I was running, I thought, ‘I have made a huge mistake,’ ” Teresa says. “I could not breathe. I thought, ‘This is bad.’ ”
She saw her cardiologist the next month, and asked if she could begin training — more gently this time — for the Buck Hurley Triathlon the next spring.
“Teresa,” he said, “we are talking about heart surgery. No!”
Teresa was taken aback.
“He was talking about now,” she says. “I had been missing all that.”
The cardiologist recommended a cardiac catheterization, then surgery.
“I knew it was serious,” she says.
She went back to Thompson the next day, complaining about how hard she was working to be healthy.
He told her, “You have a mechanical malfunction. It has nothing to do with your cardiac lifestyle.”
She had a more detailed test on her heart, a transesophageal echocardiogram, in February 2010, and began doing research on surgeries and surgeons.
Ironically, her mother, Pat Moore, had the same surgery in 2002, although she was 65 at the time. Pat urged her to see her surgeon, Dr. Randall Chitwood, at the East Carolina University Heart Institute.
Teresa wanted a less invasive procedure than open heart surgery. She met with a surgeon at Duke, who told her, “When you go south, you’ll tank quickly.”
She drove to Greenville to meet with Chitwood.
Not only is Chitwood a heart valve expert, he’s an expert on mitrovalve prolapse.
When Teresa met him, she knew he would be the one to perform her surgery.
Using the Da Vinci robotic procedure, Chitwood would be in one room, Teresa in another. He assured her she wouldn’t be alone.
She set about selecting a date.
At the time, it was the season of Lent. There’s no way I’m going to have surgery during Lent, Teresa thought.
“After Easter,” she says, the Lord is risen and flowers are blooming. Doesn’t that sound like a better time to have surgery?”
She chose April 13, 2010, which was one week after Easter last year. The surgery was to be on a Tuesday, because she never manages to make Monday appointments.
That Monday morning, she kissed her son Will goodbye, just like she does every weekday morning.
She’d told her husband, “Monday will be a regular day and I will kiss him goodbye. You take him to school. Then you come pick me up, and I can cry all I want.”
“That’s the only way I could do it,” she says.
She relied on her mom for guidance to prepare for surgery.
“My mom told me to pray that either way, it will be OK,” Teresa says. “I did, and I was very relaxed about the whole thing.”
Her husband took to calling her Tin Man (because she needed a good heart), and her friends at the Y got her a Tin Man T-shirt, which she wore to Greenville.
“It just took the edge off the seriousness of it,” she says.
Her husband drove her to Greenville. Her parents and one of her five sisters came later. Another sister took care of Will. Still another covered the pharmacy. One of her two brothers visited.
Teresa’s surgery was five hours long, four hours of which were spent on a heart-lung machine. Chitwood made a two-inch incision just to the side of her right breast, then cut through her sternum muscles to access and repair the valve.
“When I opened my eyes,” she says, “I knew I was better. I was really sick. That’s all you know. It’s your normal.”
Her recovery went well. She and Bob stayed in Greensville for a week, and she returned to the Y, hugging her heart-shaped pillow, one week to the day after surgery. On one side of it are signatures from her surgeons, nurses and visitors in Greenville. On the other side are signatures from her Y friends.
“The people from the Y carried me emotionally, physically and spiritually,” she says. “They were the biggest cheerleaders I’ve ever met.”
Many of the signatures have faded, because she held that pillow so close, for so long.
Nowadays, Teresa comes to the Y every weekday morning at 8 a.m., working out for an hour before classes at 9. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday is Robin Fisher’s aerobics class, while Joe Hall’s spinning class meets Tuesday and Thursday.
The soreness in her sternum went away by August, after Teresa admitted she was pushing herself a little too hard.
These days, she’s in training again, for the Super Sprint portion of the Buck Hurley Triathlon.
She’s able to swim in the pool.
“It’s amazing,” she says. “I’m not gasping. My heart’s not racing.”
She’s right on the front row of Joe’s cycling class.
He says of her diagnosis, “We were surprised because she’d been so active. We were concerned and we wanted to help prepare her for surgery and her recovery afterward.
Now, he says, “We’re just thrilled with her progress. It was a serious situation that she had, so to go from that situation to being active and energetic has been inspirational to all of us.”
One thing, however, hasn’t changed, Joe says.
Teresa still whines during class.
Teresa knows that today will be an emotional day.
“I’m very emotional,” she says. “It doesn’t take much to make me cry.”
But, she adds, “Every day, I have been given the gift of life. I want to use it as honestly and sincerely as God intends me to.”
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.
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