Heart Stories
Firsthand accounts of moments that change your life
By Stacey Adams

It usually happens suddenly, right when you’re cruising along, living your life and feeling pretty good. But then again, maybe you really don’t feel good, but for whatever reason, you just keep pushing on. Problem is, when you ignore the warning signs your body gives you, trouble usually follows.

For three South Jersey residents, that’s exactly what happened. They are sharing their stories to help us all learn what to do when our body is telling us something. Because sometimes, you have to stop for a minute, pay attention and take care of yourself.



❤ Bill Schaffer was in denial.

Every time he walked up and down stairs, he felt a stabbing pain in the center of his chest. His indigestion was becoming more frequent, and there was this weird sensation, like two fingers were squeezing his heart.

Then came the night in 2016 when he could no longer ignore his symptoms. It started like usual for Schaffer, who was 57 at the time and winding down his career in emergency management for the state. That squeezing of his heart changed to a crushing. He became flushed and started sweating. Once the pain moved to his left arm and jaw, he knew it was a heart attack.

Schaffer calls this a wake-up call about a lot of things in his life, like how much his job stress was impacting his health. As director of the state’s EMT department, he had spent six months at Ground Zero after 9/11 and had responded to mass shootings, hurricanes, auto accidents, you name it.

“My job was 24/7,” he says, noting that he often would eat quick, unhealthy meals at odd hours.

Retirement has eased that stress, but it’s not as carefree as he imagined. Since his heart attack, he’s had a quadruple bypass, five stents and multiple cardiac catheterizations, among other cardiac-related issues.

So now, taking care of his health is his job. Both he and his wife have changed their eating habits, with a focus on less fat and fewer carbs. He walks daily, drinks a lot of water and has management of his blood pressure to a science. He’s also down 40 pounds.

A photograph of Schaffer showing scars from open-heart surgery (above) was recently featured on a gripping poster for the AHA’s campaign to get people to take high blood pressure seriously.

“My cholesterol and triglycerides are fantastic now,” he says. “Jokingly, my cardiologist told me ‘You had to have a heart attack to get yourself into good shape.’”



❤ Mount Laurel resident Debbie Johnson was crushing her 2018 New Year’s resolution to get in better shape.

After her husband’s death from cardiovascular disease the year prior, she started eating better, working out regularly with a trainer and was dropping the pounds, shedding some 70 of them within a few months. But even as the compliments and encouragement fueled her on, she knew something was very off.

“I was lightheaded at times, getting up from my desk or out of the car, but I kept excusing it as my weight loss, or allergies or sinuses, or stress,” Johnson says, noting that she suffered in silence, afraid to let on that she didn’t feel as good as she looked.

“I’m known for my positive, upbeat disposition and my smile,” she says. “I didn’t want anyone to think I wasn’t OK.”

When she finally got herself checked out, doctors confirmed her worst fears. She had a serious heart issue: hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy. It’s characterized by an abnormally thick heart muscle, and is the most common cause of sudden cardiac death in people younger than 30, including athletes, according to the AHA. It can be triggered by strenuous activity, such as an intense workout or even bending over to pick up the laundry basket.

She was also diagnosed with high blood pressure – which explained her lightheadedness and the excruciating headaches.

Restricted from lifting more than 2 pounds for the rest of her life, Johnson had to immediately give up her gym regimen. This was crushing news at first, but she has since figured out how to stay active and safe, like walking on her treadmill at home at an easy and slow pace.

“I felt like I was walking on eggshells for many months,” Johnson says. “And then I thought, OK, I can’t let this define me. I have a lot to be thankful for. I have two beautiful children that need me, I have wonderful friends and a wonderful, supportive family. I need to accept this. It’s not a crutch, and I need to do what I can and be thankful for that.’”



❤ Vanessa Parry Zoog and her husband Chris of Cinnaminson had been waiting three years to adopt a baby from China when their daughter entered their lives. Lottie came to them through a program that matched parents with children who had correctable special needs.

Small and malnourished after spending nearly the first year of her life in a Chinese orphanage, the little girl was also born with a “little foot” – her foot bones never formed past her heel.

For Vanessa and Chris, any problems were overshadowed by what they saw in Lottie: lots of energy and a warm, loving nature. The only clue of health issues to come was that she would sweat excessively. Doctors chalked that up to her adjusting to the climate here.

But shortly before her second birthday, Lottie’s health took an alarming turn. Thinking she had an infection, her doctors treated her with antibiotics. But a week into a hospital stay, the condition was only getting worse. That’s when Vanessa and Chris received shocking news: Lottie had a massive hole in her heart. It had gone undetected for all these years because it was so huge it made no sounds.

Two months shy of her second birthday, Lottie was scheduled for open-heart surgery. It was a stressful time for her family.

“I could not even entertain the thought of losing this precious child that we had waited for so long,” Vanessa recalls. “We had people praying for Lottie from coast to coast.”

The procedure took 3 hours and, fortunately, it worked. With her heart functioning normally, Lottie almost immediately started gaining weight and growing more quickly.

“She’s still small for her age, but we just tell her good things come in small packages,” Vanessa says. “She might be small, but she is certainly mighty!”

Lottie turned double digits over the summer and can do all the things a typical 10-year-old can. She’s proud to play clarinet in advanced band and loves singing and acting. Her small size has advantages too, especially in cheerleading where she’s a flyer.

And her heart story is mostly a non-issue, except when it counts.

“I rarely think about the fact that I had heart surgery until the time of year when my school does Jump Rope for Heart to raise money for research,” she says. “Last year I brought in the most donations of anyone in my class.”

February 2020
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