A heart attack survivor who had open-heart surgery, 23-year-old Ceirra Zeager stresses the importance of mental health to others dealing with medical issues.
Ceirra Zeager was only 14 years old when she passed out at home the day after her first winter formal. When she woke up on the floor, “It felt like there was an elephant on my chest,” she said.
Her father rushed her to the hospital, making the 20 -to-30-minute drive in 10 minutes. Her arms ached so badly she put on headphones to drown out the pain. The emergency room doctor suspected anxiety, but he sent her to a nearby children’s hospital just in case.
She waited there for hours before doctors told her she needed emergency surgery.
“They didn’t really explain anything to me,” she said. “I think they were trying to protect me.”
After the surgery, she learned she had suffered a heart attack. A blood clot had traveled through a hole in her heart and lodged in a coronary artery. After inserting mesh to plug the hole, her cardiologist prescribed powerful blood thinners to dissolve the clot.
But the heart attack permanently damaged her heart.
“My life from that moment was completely flipped upside down,” she said.
For the next few months, Zeager could only attend school for half a day and, to take pressure off her heart, she used a backpack on wheels.
“I felt like everyone was looking at me like I was a porcelain doll,” she said.
Despite the damage to her heart, she enjoyed a relatively normal life, attending college and getting engaged — until the summer of 2021, when she began experiencing extreme fatigue, unable to even walk across a room without stopping to catch her breath.
While an electrocardiogram showed no cause for concern, a follow-up echocardiogram revealed that one of her heart valves was leaky, allowing blood to splash back into areas it shouldn’t.
The cardiologist planned to reevaluate in six months. After researching the condition, she got a second opinion from a cardiologist who felt the valve needed to be repaired or replaced as soon as possible.
“It was a very calming moment because I was listened to for the first time,” she said.
About two weeks before her wedding, Zeager learned she was scheduled for open-heart surgery early the next year. Questions raced through her mind: “What does the surgery entail? What’s the recovery like? Will I survive?”
Meanwhile, Zeager embarked on a weeklong trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks with family and friends. Near the end of the trip, she tied the knot.
“It really was a last hurrah,” she said. “I'm glad I did that, because I would have gone crazy if I had just been sitting around waiting.”
Shortly after they returned, Zeager had a less invasive open-heart surgery to repair the valve.
“I don’t have to carry that big scar down my chest to be a constant reminder of that traumatic time,” she said.
Recovery, however, was slow going. Bruised, swollen and unable to do much besides watch TV, she also felt insecure about her self-image and had trouble sleeping.
“I was beating myself up constantly, and I’ve never experienced anything like that,” she said. “It hit me all at once.”
She credits cardiac rehab for getting her back on track, building her stamina, confidence and self-esteem.
Determined to stay healthy, Zeager, now 23, does high-intensity exercise regularly, eats a healthy, low-sodium diet and practices self-care, getting her hair and nails done regularly.
“I try to find happiness in the small things,” she said. “I see everything as an opportunity and a blessing from God.”
She also shares her story with others, emphasizing the physical and mental effects of a major health issue such as heart disease.
Recently, she served as the keynote speaker at an American Heart Association Go Red for Women event near her home in Pennsylvania.
“I had this crazy, tragic thing happen to me, and I want to use it for good and raise as much awareness as I can,” she said. “I have purpose now.”
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