Carol Keeling was only 33 years old when she had her first brush with heart issues. It all started with a cough.
She was visiting a sister in Lexington in April 1991 and started coughing. The bout continued for days, so bad that she was “drinking a bottle of cough medicine at night.”
She kept putting off a doctor’s visit for the cough, and thought he was wrong when he told her it was heart problems. “I said, ‘there’s no way I could have heart problems.’”
Her only symptoms were the coughing, being out of breath and swollen ankles. She was in her workplace (she has worked for Dr Michael Sewell for 33 years and is now practice manager for CHI Saint Joseph Health - Orthopedics with Dr. Mark Duber), and had to stop in the middle of walking through the office.
Keeling had lost a lot of weight before giving birth to her third child just six months before. She took the referral to a cardiologist for peace of mind. She saw the cardiologist on a Wednesday, where she had an echocardiogram and underwent a stress test.
The news wasn’t good. There was a problems with her mitral valve. “It was barely working and he said they needed to do surgery on this now … the sooner we do it the better,” Keeling said.
The surgery went well, but complications kept Keeling in the hospital for 50 days. She had a second open heart surgery because the valve became infected.
In March 1992, Keeling noticed her left hand was tingling. She knew something wasn’t right. She dropped her youngest son off at day care and stopped by her husband’s workplace so he could take her other children to school. He took her to the emergency department at Flaget Memorial Hospital.
A longtime practice manager, Keeling knew most people in the ED. The physician on call, Dr. Bill Hagan, contacted her cardiologist, who said, after reviewing her EKG, that she could go home. But something to the emergency department staff seemed off, so they kept her for observation.
A friend who worked at Flaget at the time stopped by to see her. Keeling told her she was fine and the friend turned to leave. “She got to the door and didn’t hear anything and turned around,” Keeling said. “I was in the middle of having a heart attack and stroke.”
Keeling’s friend alerted caregivers, who immediately responded. “The only reason I survived is because Flaget’s ER and Dr. Hagan were wise enough to know there was something going on but couldn’t pinpoint it,” Keeling said.
She remembers seeing angels. She remembers heaven. And she remembers waking up in the cardiac unit with her husband and family there. “My husband said, ‘Duke is playing Kentucky.’ I remember seeing (Christian) Laettner make that shot,” she said.