Straight from the heart

  • Published
  • By Maj. Karen J. Ashley
  • 55th Medical Group
Forty-five years ago this month, an event took place that determined the path of my life.
This article is a tribute to that event, and I would like to recognize the efforts of the American Heart Association in battling heart disease, the brilliant medical professionals who have made remarkable advances in cardiac surgery, the amazing Navy nurses, who bent the rules to teach a curious young girl and my mother, who had absolute faith.

Most of us think of February as a month of hearts, candy and flowers that help us celebrate Valentine's Day. I suspect that few people know that since 1963 Congress has required the president to proclaim February, "American Heart Month." The AHA works directly with the administration to draft and sign this annual proclamation.

The AHA also educates and provides community health programs to millions every year. These programs are designed to help people identify heart health risk, including stroke, heart attack and other cardiovascular conditions. Numerous support groups and intervention programs are available to assist in identifying and reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Kicking off the 2010 American Heart Month campaign is the newest AHA program called, "Go Red For Women," which is observed Feb. 5. Millions across America will wear red on this day, supporting efforts to educate women about heart disease and stroke.

The AHA notes that heart disease is the number one killer of women ages 20 years and older, killing approximately one woman every minute.

More women die of cardiovascular diseases than the next five causes of death combined, including all forms of cancer. The good news is that 80 percent of cardiac events in women may be prevented if women make the right choices for their hearts. I encourage you to participate in this observance by wearing red Feb. 5.

I'll be wearing red on that day to remember my mother and her battle with heart problems.

In 1936 at the age of nine, my mother, Joy Colbert, developed a streptococcal infection, which resulted in rheumatic fever. This event permanently damaged two valves in her heart. She was told that if she lived to be 30, she would be very lucky. Fortunately for my mother, cardiac surgery was evolving, and at the age of 38, she underwent her first open heart surgery to fix her tricuspid valve. It was the third procedure of its kind and was performed in February 1965 at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego.

In preparation for her surgery, Navy nurses brought out a model of the human heart and showed our family what was wrong and how they were going to fix it. I couldn't stop asking questions; it was the most fascinating thing I had ever seen. These blessed nurses nurtured my curiosity and allowed me in to see my mom after surgery, even though the age limit for visitors was 14 and I was only 8-and-a-half. They got me a foot stool and put it on the other side of the bed and told me to stand tall and that nobody would say anything. They were wonderful and I fell in love with the idea of becoming a nurse.

During my first year of nursing school, my mother had her second open heart surgery to replace her mitral valve. Again, the nurses at Balboa were fantastic. I knew I had found my calling.

Fifteen years later, I accepted a commission in the Air Force Nurse Corps. The circle was complete. I had joined the ranks of those early nurse mentors. Three years later, my mother had her third and final surgery at Balboa. Again, there was tremendous compassion shown to our family by the nurses. This time though, she went home to be with her Lord and not us. My mother always believed that every day she had on this earth was a gift from God and not to be wasted. I try to honor that belief by continuing the mentoring process to nurses in my circle of influence.

I'm blessed every day to do the one thing I love most, work with children to help make them better. I will often share tidbits about the amazing human body, particularly the heart, with my young patients. My hope is that they too may be fascinated and find their calling in nursing or medicine. I have no idea who I have influenced throughout the 32 years of my nursing career, but I do know that when that spark is ignited, it is a tribute to those who went before me and a special gift from my mother.

The human heart is an amazing organ that begins to beat 21 days after conception. It will beat 2.5 billion times in an average lifespan of 66 years. It is the size of a clenched fist, yet pumps gallons of blood every day. As strong as the heart is, it's also fragile. It is susceptible to congenital defects, valve disease from infections and complications of ischemic heart disease that, until a century ago, were poorly understood. A handful of surgeons from the late 1890s through the early 1940s attempted surgery on the heart, but most were unsuccessful.

Following World War II, cardiac surgery changed significantly. These early advances were wonderfully shown in the 2004 film, "Something the Lord Made," which depicted the pioneering efforts of Dr. Alfred Blalock, Dr. Helen Taussig and technician Vivien Thomas in correcting "blue baby" defects. Surgery soon expanded from closed-heart procedures to the use of the heart-lung machine for open-heart surgery. This rapid scientific evolution culminated 20 years later with the first human heart transplant in 1967, performed by Dr. Christiaan Barnard in South Africa.

Heart surgery continues to evolve and today includes "off-pump bypass surgery," robotic "minimally invasive" surgery and laser ablation procedures. None of these innovations would have been possible without the passion and commitment of researchers and surgeons around the world, or the support of the AHA.

I hope that each of you is motivated to find out more about your heart health and I encourage you to visit the AHA Web site at for more information.