AHA Ambassador Susan Strong hiking

A hiker and healthy eater, Susan Strong was surprised to hear she needed heart surgery last year at age 49.

But radiation therapy she had received more than three decades earlier to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma had taken its toll: Strong had developed severe aortic stenosis and regurgitation. Stenosis is a narrowing of the aortic-valve opening that restricts blood flow, and regurgitation is the name for leaking heart valves.

“I was completely shocked when I found out I was going to need a valve replacement,” Strong says.

Leading up to the surgery on Nov. 12, 2014, old thoughts that had haunted her ever since her cancer diagnosis at 17 reemerged: doubts about whether she’d live to 50.

Now, the Colorado Springs, Colorado, middle-school teacher is back to health and back on the hiking trails. She’s also joined the ranks of the newly established American Heart Association Patient Ambassadors.

As an ambassador, Strong is sharing her story online and in person to support fellow patients—and even to inspire her students to dream up inventions like the one she credits with saving her life.

That invention is called transcatheter aortic valve replacement, or TAVR. It’s a fairly new procedure that involves inserting a replacement valve into the old aortic valve’s spot using a catheter; in Strong’s case, the catheter was inserted into the femoral artery.

The procedure is minimally invasive and allows the patient to avoid open-heart surgery.

“When I found out I could have TAVR, I posted on Facebook that I felt like I won the lottery,” Strong says.

She was still nervous for the surgery, naturally, but 47 hours after it was completed at University of Colorado Hospital in Denver, she got to go home (with just a quarter-inch scar in the groin area) and even attended an all-day seminar the next day.

Over the last year, Strong has taken her story to the public to help others in similar situations. She founded a group in Colorado Springs called One Simple Step, aimed at offering support to those who wish to eat healthier, exercise more regularly and make other positive changes.

She posted online a four-minute Flipagram video with photos of her medical journey and shared the video with her sixth-graders.

“Maybe you can be doctors, scientists and engineers and invent things like this,” she told them about TAVR.

And as an American Heart Association Patient Ambassador, she hopes to encourage others coping with heart disease.

“When you can transform suffering into something of value that helps other people, I just think that’s what humans need to work towards,” Strong says. “You’re able to look back and embrace every part of your life and see that something good and beautiful can come of it.”

Just recently, a hospital staffer contacted Strong and asked if she were willing to talk with a man in a similar situation. She met him for lunch and felt gratified to help out.

“Just to know your life isn’t over with your diagnosis—the encouragement that gives is huge,” she says. “That’s what I want to give to others. Being an ambassador through the American Heart Association is a big part of that. I want to take what I’ve been through and encourage people and give them hope that they can live a full life.”

With her new valve, Strong won’t let anything hold her back. This past summer, she went hiking in Hawaii and Ireland.

This fall, she’ll celebrate her 50th birthday with, of course, a hike—this time closer to home but somewhere she’s never been, Hanging Lake in Colorado.