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Connie Reybrouck

A story about heart repair

Connie ReybrouckConnie Reybrouck had experienced panic attacks since the age of 16. But it wasn’t until she was nearly 50 that she realized the panic wasn’t all in her head. At least part of it was in her heart.

The attacks would often hit when she was doing something as simple as walking to a friend’s house. “I wouldn’t be able to move,” says Connie. “I’d have a shocking pain in my chest, neck and shoulder. I wouldn’t be able to breathe. I would sit down and get the chills.” At one point, when she was 21, she had a panic attack that left her immobilized for two days on her couch.

These attacks would strike her as many as five times per year, and could happen at any time. “It got so that I was afraid to go out in public,” Connie says. “I wasn’t sure when the chest pains would hit.”

Connie’s health worsens

Connie lived with this situation for years, until one day, she experienced an especially severe attack. “I was sitting at the breakfast bar in our home,” says Connie, “and I felt like someone punched me. I ended up on the floor. I couldn’t talk. All I could do was mouth the word ‘water’ to my husband.”

Immediately following this episode, Connie went for a stress test and was told she had a healthy heart. With heart problems ruled out, anxiety was considered the most likely culprit. She was put on a high dose of anti-depressants, two in the morning and four at night. But Connie didn’t like how the medication made her feel—light-headed and sleepy—and was concerned with how it was affecting her ability to raise her two children.

A few months later, Connie hurt her back and ended up visiting a chiropractor. Every time he worked on her back, she would experience pain in her temples. She asked her doctor about these symptoms and was told “It’s just stress.” Still, she would have episodes of chest pain and a shock that would travel down her arm. She thought to herself, “Maybe work is just stressing me out.”

Meeting a different doctor

At one point Connie went into her doctor’s office with chest pains. After listening to Connie’s heart, the nurse practitioner became so concerned that she sent Connie directly to Emergency at Strong Memorial Hospital. It was there that she met Dr. Gladys Velarde.

Dr. Velarde is the head of the Strong Women’s Heart Program, which specializes in treating women with heart disease. Women, for example, often have different symptoms when they are experiencing heart attacks. Women also have more complications after heart surgery. Dr. Velarde and the Strong Women’s Heart Program specialize in understanding these differences and giving women the unique care they need.

Connie described her symptoms to Dr. Velarde. Like many women experiencing heart problems, Connie did not have “typical” symptoms. She didn’t have crushing chest pain. Instead, it came and went. But Dr. Velarde learned that Connie had been a smoker and heard about her years of being treated for anxiety. So Dr. Velarde sent Connie for an echocardiogram and a stress test.

Connie recalls: “When Dr. Velarde came back with the results, she told me, ‘I would like to be your cardiologist.’”

The diagnosis and treatment

Dr. Velarde told Connie something she hadn’t heard before: “That’s not anxiety. That’s your heart.” She went on to explain that Connie had experienced a heart attack some time earlier. Connie realized when that had happened. It had been two years earlier: Connie had experienced an episode during which she had felt intense pain in her chest and throat—like a vice. But she was told it was simply another panic attack.

The truth was, Connie had severe blockages in her heart. So Dr. Velarde sent her to Strong surgeon Dr. Peter Knight for coronary artery bypass surgery. Later, she would need several stents put in as well, a procedure that was done by Strong’s Dr. Frederick Ling.

In Dr. Velarde’s opinion, it’s hard to overstate the effect this treatment has had on Connie. “She would have been dead,” says Dr. Velarde.

But there has been another effect on Connie’s life, one that was not expected by anyone: “Since having that surgery,” says Connie, “I have never had another panic attack.”

“I’ve met some really great people like Dr. Velarde, Dr. Ling and Dr. Knight,” say Connie. “But I never saw Dr. Velarde as a doctor. It felt like she was my friend. I trusted her, and was never intimidated by her.”

And there’s one other person who Connie feels changed her life: The nurse who sent her to Dr. Velarde. “If that nurse hadn’t sent me to Emergency at Strong on that very day,” says Connie, “I wouldn’t have met Dr. Velarde and I wouldn’t be here today. I’m very thankful.”