By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Tired, nauseous and short of breath, Pat Kirby knew something wasn’t right, but she blamed it on stress. She was doing multiple news interviews, providing law enforcement expertise on a sniper case in Washington, D.C.
A college professor at the time, Kirby was a former Baltimore police detective and FBI agent and was the inspiration for the character Clarice, played by Jodie Foster, in The Silence of the Lambs. Searching for answers was second nature for Kirby.
The 52-year-old — who exercised regularly and maintained a healthy weight — continued to feel a heavy sensation in her chest. She called her doctor and asked what could be happening.
“His actual words to me were, ‘It must be allergies. We know it’s not your heart,’ ” she recalled.
With her symptoms worsening, Kirby’s daughter, a medical student, insisted that she get to her doctor’s office. There, an electrocardiogram was performed, and Kirby was whisked in a wheelchair to a cardiac catheterization lab.
A major artery was 99 percent blocked, and blood wasn’t flowing to the bottom of her heart. She was having a heart attack. Doctors quickly inserted a stent.
It wasn’t clear what caused the blockage that fall of 2002, and, Kirby noted, “For months and months it never did feel right.”
Eight months later, scar tissue had formed, and another stent was inserted into the artery. Then six months later, it was time for yet another stent.
It was frustrating not knowing what would solve the problem, Kirby said.
A second cardiologist diagnosed her with Raynaud’s syndrome, which can cause spasms and narrowing of blood vessels. The doctor suggested that was causing the problem.
Again, scar tissue grew over the existing stent. Three more stents were inserted.
Kirby put her detective skills to work once more and visited specialists at the Cleveland Clinic. They warned her to prepare for open-heart surgery. Two months later, she was experiencing 80 percent artery blockage and underwent double bypass surgery.
Arteries from her breast and chest cavity were grafted and routed around the existing stents. Since that operation in 2006, Kirby has been symptom-free.
Now doctors believe Kirby may not have suffered from cardiovascular disease but rather artery spasms brought on by stress. The spasms mimic heart disease but can be treated with medication rather than stents.
“It was a long trip to get back to the beginning,” Kirby said. “To me, I think the big thing was the vulnerability.”
Those “four very uncomfortable, touchy years,” she said, were more frightening than patrolling the streets of Baltimore, investigating homicides or profiling criminals for the FBI.
Today, Kirby, 65, takes an anti-spasm medicine and continues to live actively in Falmouth, Maine, where she jogs, hikes and does yoga. She moved there and married in 2007 after having spent summers in Maine for several years.
Kirby is also active with the American Heart Association. She gives speeches, as she did last year at a Go Red For Women luncheon. Her husband, Peter Thornton, served as a “red tie guy.”
Her daughter, Emily Rekuc, D.O., who originally insisted she get to the doctor, has volunteered at a Go Red event in her area in La Quinta, California. Kirby also has done radio ads and television interviews and volunteered at the AHA’s Heart Walk.
Kirby hopes to instill in others the awareness that a heart problem can affect anyone. She also points out that cardiac rehabilitation, which she underwent after her bypass surgery, can provide much-needed support and camaraderie.
Kirby urges patients to become actively involved in their treatment.
“I’m not just a patient. I’m a part of the process,” she said. “It just was such a lesson for me.”
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Photos courtesy of Pat Kirby