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A Heart in the Best of Hands: A Young Molly Anderson Shares Her Open Heart Surgery Journey

At age 44, Molly Anderson was seemingly in good health. She had no risk factors for heart disease, lived an active life and was happily running her own thriving jewelry business — mollybeads. As she prepared for a jewelry trunk show in the North Carolina mountains in the fall of 2018, Molly didn’t feel quite like herself. She developed a variety of odd symptoms, including the feeling of something stuck in her throat, a mild headache, earache and some intermittent pain in her left arm. Eager to participate in the jewelry show, Molly brushed it off as insignificant and headed out of town, taking Advil as needed throughout the weekend.

Symptoms That Wouldn’t Go Away

When she returned home on Sunday, she was tired and headed to bed early only to wake up at around 4:00 am feeling like there was an elephant sitting on her chest. At first, she worried it was a heart attack, but after Googling her symptoms, she convinced herself it was just anxiety. She took some medicine, started feeling better and went back to sleep for another three hours.

The next morning, Molly woke up and found her symptoms hadn’t subsided, and her breathing was becoming labored. She called her primary care doctor who had her come in immediately for an EKG. Her results didn’t show anything alarming, but they decided to consult a cardiologist who promptly admitted her to the WakeMed Chest Pain Center. They ran through a wide range of cardiovascular tests, including bloodwork, ultrasound, and x-ray — but nothing seemed to provide any answers. There was no evidence of a heart attack, so they ordered a CT scan, and she was scheduled for a stress test for the following day. They suspected a pulmonary embolism (PE), but needed the remaining tests to be certain. At 10:00 pm, Molly had a CT scan and was told she’d get the results as soon as the radiologist reviewed the test.

At 4:00 am, Molly awoke to alarms and monitors sounding off as her blood pressure went through the roof.

“By this point, I was fearful of dying — not knowing what was wrong with me was so scary,” Molly recalls.

Shortly thereafter, her primary care provider came in for morning rounds and told her the CT scan indicated she had an ascending aortic aneurysm (AAA), which is a rare and life-threatening condition that occurs when the wall of the aorta weakens and forms a bulge. Because the aorta is the largest artery in the body, an AAA is very dangerous and can cause sudden death if it ruptures.

Nearly three-quarters of patients with an AAA will have no symptoms, so in this case, Molly was extremely fortunate that her body sounded the alarms that something was wrong. Looking back, Molly is so thankful that her symptoms continued to escalate to the point that she could no longer ignore them. Today, she’s passionate about encouraging women NOT to do what she did — which is to ignore her body for several days before seeking medical attention.

“I am so blessed that I got the care I needed before it was too late, but many women aren’t so lucky. I want to remind women who are trying to be all things to all people all the time to take care of themselves — and not to shrug off signs that your body isn’t functioning properly. Doing so could have cost me my life, and I’m so fortunate it didn’t.”

Open Heart Surgery

Shortly after her diagnosis, Molly was introduced to WakeMed Heart & Vascular cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Judson Williams, who instantly put her at ease and instilled confidence that she was in the right hands. Dr. Williams is a world-renowned surgeon who has been a pioneer in developing new protocols and standards designed to improve recovery and outcomes for patients undergoing heart surgery.

He explained that she’d need to have a major open heart procedure — quickly — in order to repair her aorta. This procedure is designed to prevent the risk of rupture, restore good bloodflow and relieve symptoms. After they performed a cardiac catheterization to ensure there were no blocked arteries or valve issues (there weren’t), she was scheduled for surgery less than two weeks later.

“At first, I was terrified at the thought of having open heart surgery — I’d watched my dad undergo two similar procedures and I knew how difficult recovery was and the long road I had ahead of myself,” Molly recalls.

The day of the procedure, Dr. Williams was surprised to find that not only did Molly have an ascending aortic aneurysm (AAA), she also suffered from severe aortitis, which is very rare and often leads to poor outcomes in AAA patients. Because of the aortitis, Molly’s aorta had adhered to her esophagus, which explained the odd feeling she had in her throat.

“This degree of inflammation of the aorta is something I don’t see very often, and it’s very dangerous because it can signify rupture or dissention of the aorta, which can lead to sudden death. Molly was extremely fortunate that her symptoms led her to seek care, and I’m so thankful we were able to fully repair her aorta and get her back to feeling herself again.”

At Molly’s one-year post-surgery appointment, she gifted Dr. Williams with a needlepoint depiction of an anatomical heart as a token of her gratitude. He keeps the heart proudly displayed on his office wall.

Enhanced Recovery After Surgery (ERAS)

Although Molly had fears about the recovery process, she was only in the hospital for four days, followed by a smooth journey to recovery. That’s due to in part to Molly’s youth combined with the fact that Dr. Williams and the WakeMed Heart & Vascular program were the very first in the nation to introduce a new heart surgery protocol known as ERAS, which stands for Enhanced Recovery After Surgery. Implemented at WakeMed in April 2017, this protocol includes approximately 20 standards of care, that when used together, lead to less pain, fewer complications and faster recovery times in patients undergoing heart surgery. As such, WakeMed’s ERAS program and model have gained extensive international recognition for its remarkable outcomes. Molly’s positive recovery experience was a testament to the power of the ERAS protocol.

“My experience at WakeMed and throughout my recovery was so incredible — everyone from the amazing Dr. Williams to the excellent nurses who cared for me were the best, and I can’t say enough good things about WakeMed Heart & Vascular. I was amazed by my recovery, and I credit the team for all the work they’ve put into figuring out what works best for heart surgery patients. Dr. Williams is truly a gift to this community, and I credit both him and my primary care provider, Dr. Benjamin Fischer, with saving my life.”

Following Molly’s surgery, she underwent testing which revealed a genetic marker that had predisposed her to having an aneurysm. This makes sense since her father had a history of the condition too. As a result, Molly will undergo periodic imaging tests to look for future aneurysms, but today, she is thankful for each thankful to be alive. She is now a volunteer and community ambassador for the WakeMed Foundation, WakeMed’s philanthropic partner, helping raise awareness and funds to support WakeMed’s mission of improving the health and well-being of our community.