Heart of a warrior: She cherishes each moment after surviving a medical emergency

Debra Becker at the Cardiac Rehabilitation program at Upstate's Institue for Human Performance. (PHOTO BY ROBERT MESCAVAGE)

Debra Becker at the cardiac rehabilitation program at Upstate’s Institute for Human Performance. (PHOTO BY ROBERT MESCAVAGE)

BY JIM HOWE

A woman who did her best to stay fit nearly died. That experience taught her never to take her health for granted.

Debra Becker of Liverpool was a runner. She practiced yoga and worked out regularly, including a heavy-duty fitness program called CrossFit. She also held demanding jobs in public relations and advertising.

She began suffering from fatigue. And because of long, heavy menstrual bleeding, she underwent what was to have been a simple exploratory dilation and curettage procedure in early October 2014 at Upstate University Hospital.

In the recovery room after the operation, doctors discovered her heart murmur.

A cardiology team discovered that several of the supportive cords — which resemble the strings on a parachute — on Becker’s mitral valve had broken. The valve was not closing properly, causing blood to backflow toward her lungs and creating the murmur.

Her condition – severe mitral valve regurgitation and prolapse – was “extremely unusual” after a minor procedure, especially given her demanding exercise routine, notes her gynecologist, Howard Weinstein, MD.

Becker needed emergency heart surgery. If she hadn’t been in the hospital when the problem developed, she probably would have died, she recalls her heart surgeon, Gregory Fink, MD, telling her.

“When her cords ruptured, she developed pulmonary edema (congestion) and heart failure. While she was able to compensate/tolerate this for the short term (perhaps one to two weeks), for the longer term, her prognosis was very poor,” Fink says.

Becker’s husband, Steve, says it was “divine intervention” that kept her alive. That, and Fink, who was able to repair her valve without using an artificial valve. Later, Fink received the Surgeon of the Year Award from the Central New York Business Journal; Becker nominated him.

Becker spent most of October 2014 in the intensive care unit and began a long, slow recovery that involved weakness, inactivity and needing a lot of help from other people, none of which Becker was used to.

She later underwent a hernia repair and the surgical removal of wires from a pacemaker that poked through her skin. She also had surgery to fix a nasal condition caused by the oxygen tubes she had needed to breathe.

Her cardiac rehabilitation program at Upstate’s Institute for Human Performance meant three carefully monitored sessions a week for 12 weeks. Her cardiologist, Robert Carhart Jr., MD, says her recovery is going “quite well.”

Becker writes a blog about her experience and organizes a team for the American Heart Association Heart Walk. Gradually she has become more active. And, she has altered the way she looks at life.

“Now I try to live in the moment and cherish each moment,” she says. “I’m trying to encourage other people to do the same thing.”

Layout 1 finalThis article appears in the spring 2016 issue of Upstate Health magazine.

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