Ashley’s Story: Facing Open Heart Surgery at 19

As a student at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Ashley Heitzman kept passing out. Her body was also having a hard time regulating its temperature, fluctuating from extremely hot to uncomfortably cold.

Listening to her heart, doctors heard a murmur. An echocardiogram revealed a hole, or an atrial septal defect, which she was likely born with. Heitzman went from happy, well-adjusted college student to undergoing open heart surgery at the age of 19, with tissue from the left side of her heart repairing the hole.

In hindsight, Heitzman said she’d always been a sleepy kid and loved naps as a young adult too. The surgery – and a properly functioning heart – restored her energy levels to what they should have been. With renewed vigor, Heitzman went on to earn her bachelor’s in psychology and will complete requirements for her master’s in social work this spring. After her heart health ordeal, she decided she wants to work in health care, helping other patients navigate a system that Heitzman knows firsthand can feel overwhelming.

“I want to make that experience as easy as possible and I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through,” she said.

Image of Ashley Heitzman with arms raised over head in Costa Rica.
Ashley Heitzman on a trip to Costa Rica that she’d had to postpone in order to recover from open heart surgery. “I was just so thankful and so happy to even be able to walk and have that opportunity to be healthy enough to go,” she said.

Still, Heitzman considers herself lucky. Although she enjoyed cheerleading in high school, doctors told her it was fortunate she never took up running or a more strenuous sport. Catching the hole when she did also prevented potentially deadly complications that could have resulted from any future pregnancies. She undergoes a complete cardiac checkup every year but requires no medications and all indicators show her heart is very healthy.

“I think overall, it’s just helped me enjoy life a lot more and not get upset by the small, inconvenient things,” she said.

Her health emergency has inspired her to take better care of herself. She listens to her body when it doesn’t feel well and encourages friends to do the same. She’s exercising more and eating mostly healthy foods. Heitzman is passionate about sharing her story through the American Heart Association because she wants people to know that heart conditions don’t just strike the elderly.

“You just don’t know how thankful you can be with a healthy body until it’s not working properly,” Heitzman said.

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Main image photo credit: spukkato

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