For 43 years, Cora couldn’t get help for a heart defect she’d had since birth.
Born with a heart that couldn’t pump enough blood to her lungs, she tried not to let her condition get in her way. But when her brother, sister and other kids were running and playing sports, she sat on the sidelines or had to take it slow. Even climbing stairs was sometimes hard, and she’d have to calm herself down.
Her condition also made her heartbeat abnormally loud - so loud she could hear it even when she was sitting still.
Doctors told her parents there was nothing they could do, that she’d just have to live a limited life. But 43 years later, she finally got help - when she found specialized help at the U-M Cardiovascular Center.
Before she came to U-M, Cora only revealed her condition to those closest to her. Despite the gravity of her situation, she was determined to live as normal a life as possible. She worked for 18 years as a bank clerk, got married, and soon was expecting her first child.
When her doctor refused to continue caring for her during her pregnancy because the risks were so high, she found a new doctor - and went on to have two children.
But as time went on, Cora’s condition worsened. When she pushed herself too hard, she would pass out. She continued to seek medical help and advice, but lost all hope for a normal life when she was told that she would probably have to continue raising her kids from a wheelchair and use an oxygen tent.
Searching for alternatives, she underwent two procedures to open up what was thought to be a narrow valve blocking blood flow to her lungs. But she only got worse.
One day, Cora received what she calls “a miracle” in the mail. It was a letter from the University of Michigan Health System asking her to call for an appointment, because their team might be able to help.
Apparently, someone had made a referral to U-M on her behalf, but she had no idea who. After a while, though, she didn't care. She pushed the mystery aside and called.
During her first visit to the U-M Cardiovascular Center, Cora received her first glimpse of hope in forty-three years from Dr. Julie Kovach, a cardiologist who specializes in taking care of adults born with heart defects.
“Everybody else gave up on me,” Cora recalls. “So to hear Dr. Kovach say, ‘I think I can help you’ -- I can’t tell you what that meant to me...what it still means to me. ”
At U-M, Cora went through a battery of tests. Because her heart problem had been present since birth, her procedures were done by pediatric heart specialists. They work together with Dr. Kovach in the adult cardiology division in a cooperative way that’s different from the approach used by most medical centers.
Dr. Albert Rocchini, chief of pediatric cardiology, performed a diagnostic procedure called a catheterization that allowed him to see inside her heart. This revealed that her problem was not a narrow heart valve, but, instead, an unusually large portion of heart muscle blocking the blood flow from the right side of the heart into the lungs. In addition, there was a hole in the wall of her heart.
Open-heart surgery was her only option to live a normal, healthy life. Before her surgery, Dr. Kovach said encouragingly to Cora, “You don’t know what normal is, do you? After this you will.” The operation, led by Dr. Eric Devaney, a pediatric cardiac surgeon who often operates on the hearts of tiny infants with Cora’s condition, was a success.
Now 46 years old and still in the care of Dr. Kovach, Cora still finds it hard to believe the difference that the proper diagnosis and surgery have made.
“They fixed everything! They fixed the hole in my heart. They fixed my valve. They took muscle away from my heart so it could shrink to a normal size.”
She adds, “And now I have the energy of a bionic woman. I can go to parties and I don't need to come home early because it’s too much for me. I can go up and down stairs and not get winded. I have so much energy that, sometimes, it gets on my kids’ nerves. I am truly blessed.”
Cora still has a good cry over her condition now and then, usually when she is all alone and the house is completely quiet.
“I can’t hear my heart beating anymore,” she explains. “I lived with that sound for so long that there are still times when the silence makes me cry…because I can’t believe I’m alive.”