Jessica Blomn’s story of survival has spanned more than two decades.
“My journey is a long one,” she said. “It all began when I was in my senior year at Montclair State University, where I was one of the team captains for the swim team and president of my sorority.”
Jessica’s doctor suggested she see a cardiologist after an abnormal EKG test during a regular physical. The cardiologist asked her if she ever felt tightness in her chest or became lightheaded when she swam.
“I had been feeling those things, but I thought they were normal for a college athlete in training,” Jessica said. “I didn’t know they were signs or indicators of heart disease.”
Jessica was diagnosed with chronic atrial fibrillation, an unsteady heart rhythm that wouldn’t go away. Her atriums were twice the size they should be, which caused mitral valve prolapse (when the flaps of the valve do not close properly and allow blood to leak backward into the atrium).
These conditions put Jessica at a high risk for a stroke or heart attack.
“It meant that I couldn’t swim competitively anymore,” Jessica said. “It was heartbreaking news.”
Jessica’s natural rhythm wasn’t responding to medication and her doctors said it was time for a pacemaker. This small battery-operated device helps the heart beat in a regular rhythm.
Unfortunately, the procedure was only successful for a short time and soon her heart slipped back into arrhythmia.
“I was 29 when I had my first experience with congestive heart failure,” Jessica said. “I was overly tired, short of breath and gained 16 pounds of water weight in one week. I couldn’t even walk up a flight of stairs to my apartment.”
Doctors found Jessica’s atriums were significantly enlarged and she had severe mitral valve regurgitation. The valve does not close entirely in this condition, causing blood to leak back to the atrium. Jessica received the difficult news that she would need open-heart surgery to repair the valve.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I wasn’t a little bit nervous about the surgery, but I was more than ready,” Jessica said. “Everything went as planned and I’d even describe the experience as a cakewalk. A few days after surgery, I felt like I could finally breathe again.”
Like before, the procedure was only a temporary fix. Jessica began to have episodes of ventricular tachycardia (when the heart beats too fast) and her pacemaker defibrillator leapt into action.
“I received my first ‘therapeutic shock’ while I was sleeping,” Jessica said. “One wasn’t enough – the defibrillator shocked me twice. I wasn’t prepared for the noise it makes before it shocks you. It’s a high-pitched sound like the gearing up of a bomb in an action movie.”
Over the next few years, Jessica paid close attention to her symptoms and continued to research her medical condition, medication and options for treatment.
“I was 42 when I started to not feel like myself again,” Jessica said. “The veins and discoloration of my legs were getting worse. I was more tired than normal and just lacked the energy to do anything.”
The function of Jessica’s tricuspid valve had significantly declined, and she learned she would need a second open-heart surgery.
“The doctor explained it could be a repair or a replacement depending on what he saw during the procedure,” Jessica said. “He used the dreaded word ‘transplant’ and what the plan would be if I needed one.”
Jessica remained hopeful. Her second open-heart surgery was 13 years and three days from the first one.
“I had a lot more to lose if things went wrong,” she said. “I was much older, weaker, had other medical complications, an 8-year-old daughter and my husband.”
The good news was Jessica didn’t need a transplant. But the bad news was just beginning. She was in an induced coma for the first six days. Because her heart was so enlarged, doctors couldn’t close her chest. Jessica was diagnosed with acute renal failure and needed dialysis about a month after surgery. In total, she spent 72 days in the hospital.
“It was a bad dream I couldn’t wake up from,” she said. “Six months after surgery, my body had healed, but my mind had not. I started to experience PTSD from all I had been through.”
Jessica credits her support team for helping her heal, both physically and mentally.
“I continue to have good days and bad days,” she said. “I know that a heart transplant is in my future. And I am thankful for every day I get to spend with my family.”
Jessica hopes her story will inspire others to support the work of the American Heart Association.
“I’ve had more memories, holidays and experiences because of incredible advancements in research and science,” she said. “And I’m hopeful for the discoveries that are still to come.”