By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
In the 1980s, Pat Kirby helped to inspire the character Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, which in turn inspired countless women to apply for jobs in the FBI.
Today, the 67-year-old heart attack survivor is inspiring people in a much different role — as a volunteer speaker for the American Heart Association.
“I began volunteering to tell my story to help others. I have a passion to support, educate and hopefully keep others alive,” Kirby said in an interview before #GivingTuesday, a day of philanthropy that follows Thanksgiving and shopping events Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
For the American Heart Association, #GivingTuesday offers donors the chance to celebrate the holiday spirit by giving to their local AHA affiliate and help support education, advocacy and outreach in their communities.
For Kirby, her work with AHA is a way to help teach others how to avoid some of the travails she went through more than 10 years ago.
By 2002, Kirby had already left her job as an investigator for the FBI. While working at the bureau in the early ’80s, she had met Lambs author Thomas Harris, who based parts of Clarice (played by Jodie Foster in the film) on Kirby and her experiences interviewing serial killers.
But when Kirby suffered a heart attack at age 52, she had to dust off her investigator’s skills to figure out how to fully recover.
At first, doctors weren’t sure what caused the artery blockage that prompted the heart attack. Doctors kept inserting stents, and her body kept rejecting them.
“I’d say, ‘What’s causing this?’ and they’d say, ‘We don’t know.’ I was extremely frustrated, but I kept trying to find out what was happening to me,” she said. “I’d ask one question to put together a piece in the puzzle, and that would generate another question that would take me further along the line.”
Finally, she found a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic who determined Kirby’s heart attack was caused by artery spasms brought on by stress.
Since undergoing double bypass heart surgery in 2006, she’s been in excellent health. She continues to stay fit by walking or jogging three miles a day in the woods near Bath, Maine, where she lives with her husband, Peter Thornton. Aside from taking daily doses of aspirin, Lipitor, and the anti-spasm medicine Norvasc, you’d never know she had a heart attack, she said.
Looking back, Kirby said she’s glad she was as vigilant as she was in trying to get to the bottom of her heart attack.
“My advice to people who were in my situation is to ask a lot of questions,” she said. “Beforehand, ask yourself, ‘What do I really want to know about this condition?’ Write down your concerns and ask them as questions.”
Kirby said it’s important to ask questions, in part, because some doctors don’t have great bedside manners.
“A doctor might be wonderful medically, but they might not be the best communicator,” she said. “They might be talking at you and not listening to you.”
After being treated by one doctor who didn’t respond well to her asking multiple questions, Kirby found a female cardiologist who was more patient and collaborative. She said no matter who your doctor is, you should feel free to seek a second or third opinion if your questions aren’t being addressed.
“Doctors can ask you general questions, but only you know your body, so you need to ask the doctor questions, too,” she said.
“If they aren’t giving you answers that sit well with you, go see another doctor. It’s not a slap in anyone’s face. It’s your life.”