Listening to her body

With help from VCU Health cardiologists, busy mom recovers from aortic stenosis

Suzanne Spivey is a typical, busy working mom. A 56-year-old mother of four, Spivey holds close ties to her family, has maintained a steady workout routine for most of her life, and works full time at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU as a program coordinator for physical medicine and rehabilitation.

Suzanne Spivey (left) with her cardiologist, Dr. Phoebe Ashley

But in April 2019, Spivey was struck with the news that her older sister had unexpectedly passed away. She was in shock and grieving, and in the subsequent days, she felt a horrible, fatigued feeling throughout her body. “I was dizzy. I was short of breath,” Spivey said. “I wasn’t able to lay down because I’d have trouble breathing. I was starting to just push through the days.”

Spivey had no idea what was going on but knew it had to be more than grief. Just two weeks prior she was taking Zumba. Now she couldn’t raise her arms above her head without feeling faint. “It was just horrible how I felt,” Spivey said. “I told myself, don’t ignore this because you’re upset — it could be something else.”

“Dr. Kasirajan and Dr. Ashley saved my life, and I can’t thank them enough.”

In fact, what Spivey was experiencing were the symptoms of severe aortic stenosis, a potentially fatal condition in which the valve transmitting blood from the heart to the main artery of her body had narrowed, decreasing blood flow to the rest of her body. Spivey and her family have a history of heart conditions, including a valve abnormality she had monitored since she was 18 and knew she’d have to address eventually. But as an otherwise healthy woman, she didn’t expect to get this daunting diagnosis.

Last May, Spivey met with Pauley cardiologist Dr. Phoebe Ashley, who sat with her for nearly two hours, comforting Spivey as she informed her of her full diagnosis — severe aortic stenosis due to a congenital aortic valve with two cusps instead of three, and an aortic aneurysm resulting from a weak artery wall.

Ashley prepared Spivey for what was ahead, walking her through the tests she required before open-heart surgery.

Dr. Vigneshwar Kasirajan, chair of the Department of Surgery at VCU Medical Center, led the surgery. Dutifully repairing Spivey’s aorta, Kasirajan and his surgical team removed her heavily calcified aortic valve, replaced it with an artificial prosthetic valve, and took several measures to strengthen the artery.

Three days later — and only two months after her original diagnosis — Spivey went home to her family with her heart repaired.

“Her quick post-operative recovery speaks to her level of fitness heading to the operating room. Often post-operative cardiac patients spend a week or longer in recovery,” Ashley said, emphasizing how healthy living can aid in preventing, mitigating and recovering from heart diseases.

Spivey, however, also credits her instinct and the high-level, compassionate care she received at VCU Health. “Dr. Kasirajan and Dr. Ashley saved my life, and I can’t thank them enough,” Spivey said.

“I had an amazing team. My doctors, the nurses, the X-ray techs, those in transportation, my cardiac rehab facilitators — everyone is just incredible here.”