Frances Halley had always known she had a heart murmur, but it wasn’t until she saw Dr. Stephen Bailey, Allegheny General Hospital’s director of cardiac surgery, that she learned she had a stenotic bicuspid valve.
This is a condition she was born with and which became progressively worse over the years, resulting in increasing fatigue, a chronic irregular heartbeat and numerous other symptoms. As a middle school nurse in the North Allegheny School District, it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to function optimally at her job.
“About four years ago I was told I had aortic stenosis, and that I would eventually need a valve replacement,” says the 62-year-old Halley. “The irregular heartbeat became increasingly more frequent, along with fatigue and decreasing exercise tolerance. I was short of breath, less alert, falling asleep frequently and I found it harder to keep pace with my work as a middle school nurse.”
So she decided to have an aortic valve replacement, which Dr. Bailey performed in an open-heart surgery on Dec. 23, 2015 at AGH.
“Unfortunately, for a stenotic bicuspid valve, replacement is the only option when it becomes symptomatic,” Halley says. “I was in the hospital for four days and went home on Dec. 27.”
Getting Ready for Surgery
To prepare for the surgery, Halley tried to stay active and continued to walk her dog every morning and afternoon as often as she could tolerate. The conversations she had with her cousin, who is a physician and also had an aortic valve replacement in 2008 for a bicuspid valve and an aortic aneurism, were extremely helpful.
“Being a nurse and doctor, we had a level of understanding in our conversations about the procedure that a non-health care professional might not have had,” Halley says. “We were able to talk shop, so to speak. And it was comforting that he was a family member who I could trust and be candid with. He urged me to consider a bio-prosthetic valve rather than a mechanical valve, the advantage being that no anti-coagulants are needed.”
Halley's cousin also introduced her to the website, Heart-Valve-Surgery.com, which she found to be a great resource for information and support for anyone having heart valve surgery. They both opted for porcine valves and joke that they now each have an impressive collection of pigs — novelty items only, no livestock.
Finding New Life
Halley says the valve replacement has increased her stamina and changed her life for the better.
“Fortunately, I was blessed with a great sense of humor and the ability to find levity in stressful situations,” she says. “That hasn’t changed. What has changed is my strength and stamina, and that has been wonderful. It’s amazing to me how the human body adapts to changes, good and bad. When fatigue and an irregular heart beat become a part of your normal, daily routine, you adapt as best you can.”
These days, Halley is better able to keep up with the middle school students, and she’s taking her energetic dog on longer walks in hillier, steeper areas — something she couldn’t even think of before the valve replacement, when she couldn’t make it to the end of her short street without feeling out of breath.
“I think I have to give as much credit to my dog, Lottie, as I do to the doctors and nurses for keeping me heart healthy,” Halley says. “She is an active terrier mix who dares me to keep pace with her on our daily walks. As I continued to gain strength after the surgery, I could almost sense her telling me to walk the bigger, steeper hills in our neighborhood. I would get that ‘come on, you can do this’ vibe from her.”
Halley adds that her walks have also been great to stop and chat with neighbors, watch the seasons change and witness the Western Pennsylvania weather.
“I think that all adds to the whole body, mind and spirit aspect of recovery,” she says. “I also swim and use the recumbent bike and treadmill at the Baeirl Y whenever I can.”
Healing with Art Therapy
In addition to being a school nurse, Halley is an artist/illustrator who graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and is a member of the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators. When she was a student at AIP, one of her assignments was to design a book cover. She chose
L. Frank Baum’s "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."
When Halley was home recovering from the valve replacement, she started going through her old portfolio and came across the book cover. What immediately flashed through her mind when she looked at it was, “I wonder if the Tin Man had good valves.”
“The absurdity of it made me laugh, so I decided to develop it into a cartoon,” she says. “It was very therapeutic taking it from concept to finished product. I had no particular intention in doing it other than killing some time and having a little fun in the process.”
Several people who saw it suggested that she give a copy of it to her doctor. She took a copy to one of her follow-up appointments and, although she did not see Dr. Bailey that day, Halley was told by his nurse that he enjoyed it and hung it in his office.
“I also sent a copy to my cousin to thank him for all his help and he has it hanging in his office, too,” she says. “My next idea is to illustrate Dorothy’s concussion.”
Throughout this entire process, Halley says her family — her husband, John, daughter, Colleen, and sons, Douglas and Jack — has been very supportive.
“My sons in particular kept me laughing with their endless pig jokes and absurd humor,” she says. “I also have a huge extended family and thanks to social media, I was able to keep them up-to-date on my progress.”