Valentine’s Day is adorned with the ultimate symbol of love: the heart. And for a good reason. The heart gives life, and life gives the ability to love. Beth Bale, a 64-year-old heart transplant survivor, appreciates this relationship between love and life. Her transplant offered her a perspective most people don’t ever experience and gave her a deeper connection to life.
Her journey began in 2000 when she experienced shortness of breath while traveling to her cousin’s wedding. Bale, a Leawood resident, met with Stephanie Lawhorn, MD, a clinical cardiologist at Saint Luke’s Hospital to check her heart. The news she received was stunning: her heart was enlarged and weakened, and she would need a transplant at some point in the future. Lawhorn officially diagnosed her with cardiomyopathy, a weakness of the heart muscle.
“Beth was a healthy lady, but I think a virus attacked her heart muscle somewhere down the line and damaged it,” said Dr. Lawhorn. Many times people like Bale don’t know they have a virus until they start noticing symptoms like shortness of breath.
Bale fell into denial. She thought this type of problem would happen to someone else, not her. Bale’s heart condition changed her daily life from that point. Bale, a businesswoman, mother and wife, had to gradually release some responsibilities. Lawhorn prescribed her medications to manage her heart health, so Bale viewed the transplant as a distant event.
In 2008, Bale received a defibrillator, a device that controls irregular heartbeats, which was implanted under her collarbone. The defibrillator used an electrical pulse to regulate her heartbeat. Bale said it worked well, and began to work a little too well, a little too often. At appointments, Bale began to finish Dr. Lawhorn’s sentences with, “I know I’ll need a heart transplant.”
Bale registered for heart transplant surgery in 2010.
“Ten years was a pretty good run, but it was the inevitable progress of my condition,” said Bale. She was lucky and was matched with a donor in a matter of weeks. There was no turning back. The long anticipated surgery was knocking at Bale’s doorstep, and she was excited to finally feel better.
When Bale awoke from surgery, her first thought was “I’m alive, I made it through.” And, according to Bale, each day gets better and better. She embraced her surgery knowing many patients don’t have the positive outcome she experienced. Bale believes her happy recovery could be in part because of the “half full” approach she took to life.
Life after surgery
Bale developed new life mantras as a result of her surgery.
“You have to learn to let go, and you need to act on what you can affect positively.” For her, it is as a champion for WomenHeart, an organization for women living with heart disease. Bale said her journey has led her to a passion for the heart health community.
She is an ambassador for Midwest Transplant Network, the organization that does organ matching. In her role, Bale shares her story and inspires others through public speaking engagements. To receive her certification as WomenHeart Champion, she attended the WomenHeart Science and Leadership Symposium at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. She enjoys educating and supporting American women living with heart disease by being involved in these organizations.
After her transplant surgery, Bale stopped worrying about the little things because she realized life was about relationships and everything else was just ‘stuff.’ Bale says if there are people who lift you up and make your heart sing, then those are the ones with whom you need to hang out because people matter most.
Heart disease prevention
Dr. Lawhorn says 80 percent of risk factors for heart disease are lifestyle-related. These are prevented by:
• Managing stress
• Eating a healthy diet
• Exercising for at least 30 minutes, five days a week
• Not smoking
• Limiting alcohol intake
If you have a family history of heart disease, be extra vigilant about heart symptoms. Be a proponent for your own health and get checkups. If there is anything that seems to be out of the ordinary, have it looked at sooner rather than later.
Visit americanheart.org to assess your risk for heart disease and educate yourself about risk symptoms and prevention.
How you can help
Sign up to be a donor. The easiest way to do this is to add your signature to the back of your driver’s license and sign up at organdonor.gov.
“It is sad and unfortunate that someone dies, but the fact that a part of them lives on in somebody else, who has this trickle down effect on so many lives, is a tremendous tribute,” said Bale. “The gift of life is the ultimate form of love.”