At 27, Kara DuBois experienced chest pain but her doctor explained that she had a panic attack. So she thought little of it until five years later. She learned that she actually had experienced a heart attack and needed quadruple bypass surgery. Since then she has had four more heart attacks and was in end-stage heart failure.
“I didn’t know that I had a heart attack,” DuBois, 48, of Narberth, Pennsylvania, told TODAY. “I’ve been really close to death so many times.”
But after a string of three heart attacks in less than a year, she received a heart transplant and believes her story of hope can help others facing hardship.
“Don’t give up before your miracle,” she said. “It comes right after your worst moments. When you want to give up, it’s right around the corner.”
A family history of heart disease
At 32, DuBois needed a physical exam. During it, she received an EKG and learned some stunning news: She had experienced a major heart attack previously and needed to undergo quadruple bypass surgery. She realized that anxiety attack in her 20s was more serious than she knew.
“I had heart disease,” she said.
While DuBois’ father wasn’t around, she learned that his family had heart disease and many died before turning 50. After she recovered from the bypass surgery, she hoped lifestyle changes and following doctors’ advice would allow for a long, healthy life. But she still wanted to make the most of it and started working on her bucket list.
“I always dreamed of … going on a cruise and swimming in tropical waters,” she said.
DuBois enjoyed life, but after another heart attack and years on medication, even simple activities became tough.
“I was just doing regular things, but things were getting harder. I would go out with my friends and go for a walk and I just couldn’t keep up,” she explained. “Little things like that were taking a toll on me.”
Then in November, she had another heart attack. Then another and another.
“It was just so many heart attacks,” DuBois said. “Chuck (my husband) was watching me dying over and over and me seeing the look on his face, I think we all have post-traumatic stress.”
Doctors managed her medicine to help as much as they could. To be considered for a heart transplant she had to be sick but not too sick to qualify, she explained.
“My issue was getting on the list and the horrendous backflips I had to do to get on the list. That was torture,” she said. “At times I wanted to give up so much, but my slogan is ‘Don’t give up before your miracle,’ so that wasn’t an option.”
She was finally ready to undergo screening to see if she qualified, but then the COVID-19 epidemic began and she had to wait.
“I spent a month getting sicker,” she said. “I’m dying. (I wondered): ‘Are they going to be able to manipulate these medications in a way that’s going to help me make it?’”
Heart failure before 50
Having heart disease and being in heart failure before age 50 was terrifying.
“(It) really freaked me out,” she said. “It’s intense. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
DuBois saw Dr. Paul Mather a cardiologist and professor of clinical medicine at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia. He treats patients in heart failure and admits that he rarely sees patients as young as DuBois.
“It is not common at all,” he told TODAY. “It’s incredibly unusual, especially for a woman, to have early coronary artery disease. There is some genetic underlying disorder.”
While genes play a role in her illness, Mather admits “we don’t know enough” about the exact cause of why she was so ill. DuBois tried lifestyle changes and faithfully took her prescriptions but it wasn’t enough.
“Even though she was on all the right medicines and taking (them) and paying attention and doing all the right things, she couldn't overcome the underlying disease,” Mather said. “She started having little heart attacks because her vessels started to close.”
While a young woman having a heart attack is especially rare, Mather said it’s important for doctors to truly listen to patients, no matter their age, when they complain of chest pains.
“Medicine underserves our female population especially with cardiac disease,” he said. “Anybody who presents with what we call typical cardiac symptoms should be looked at.”
Mather stressed that women often experience unusual symptoms, including:
- Shortness of breath
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Feeling confused or disoriented
“It’s just something (doctors) should consider, heart health,” he explained.
From dark days to hope
In August, DuBois spent two weeks in the hospital on a balloon pump, a machine that manually pumps blood through the coronary arteries to help “the blood flow out of the heart more efficiently” Mather explained. People with this pump cannot move and need to be strapped into bed lying down.
As DuBois grappled with being immobilized and isolated, she asked a nurse what she could do to thrive after the transplant.
“I said ‘What kind of personality traits and things do you need to be a person who survives this versus the person who doesn’t,’” DuBois said. “She said, ‘You need support,’ so that night I went screaming onto Facebook like 'Rally around me. I really need you.'”
As encouragement flooded in, she received news that she'd get a new heart on August 14, her mom's birthday.
“Everything just went as smoothly as I would have hoped and she did really well," Dr. Marisa Cevasco, assistant professor of surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Presbyterian Medical Center of Philadelphia, told TODAY. "No complications in the post-operative period.”
DuBois is taking medications and needs to receive regular biopsies to make sure her body isn't rejecting her heart, but she feels optimistic. And, she looks forward to ticking off everything on her bucket list, including learning to ride a bike.
“It’s so amazing. I actually have a future and it’s so bright,” she said. “Every second I wake up, I’m thrilled.”