Dina McPherson travels across the globe for specialized heart procedure
I’m Dina McPherson, a busy screenwriter who lives between Melbourne and LA, and like a lot of young people these days, I’m just a tad obsessed with health and fitness. I never skip a workout, meditate daily, try to eat clean and love getting outdoors. Which is what makes the fact that I just had a leading-edge, minimally invasive heart procedure halfway round the world in Fairfax, Virginia, so shocking!
My journey to Inova actually started with migraines. For as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered migraines. Not the type most people think about when they think about migraines. Strangely, I only ever get a mild headache and sometimes I don’t get a headache at all. Instead, I experience an array of weird neurological symptoms known as an aura — hallucinations, blind spots, flashing lights, tunnel vision, muffled hearing, dizziness, tingling and numbness in the arms, legs or face and trouble speaking. Some 20 percent of migraine sufferers experience auras.
At the end of 2017, I experienced my scariest aura yet. It was sudden, frightening and shook me to the core. I was on the treadmill going for a run when my vision suddenly closed in like I was looking down a long dark tunnel. When I tried to focus, everything was doubled. I felt dizzy, disorientated and nauseous. It passed after a few moments, but I was really shaken. The next few days I had muffled hearing in my right ear and a numb right cheek. I knew something wasn’t right.
Looking for answers to migraines
I went to see my GP, who prescribed an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart) due to my heart murmur, which I’ve always known I had. The echo discovered a PFO, a small hole in my heart. I also had an extremely floppy septal wall. I was stunned. How could I have lived so long and not known about this?
The doctor reassured me that PFOs are very common; up to 25 percent of the population have them. In fact, we’re all born with one. In most people, the hole seals itself shortly after birth. But for 1 in 4 people, it doesn’t.
So if PFOs are so common, why should I be worried? Because while most PFOs never cause problems, having one can increase a person’s risk of stroke. My doctor warned me that my PFO, combined with my history of migraine aura and my floppy septal wall, put me at a frightening 15-fold increased risk for stroke.
I felt like a sitting duck, trying to dodge stroke bullets. Flippantly, my doctor wrote me a prescription for blood thinners and sent me on my way, adding, “You probably won’t have a stroke, but if you do, then we should discuss closing your PFO.” I couldn’t believe it. He seriously wanted me to sit back and wait for a stroke.
I was terrified and I wasn’t the only one. My family was worried too. After exploring the option of traditional PFO closure, I decided it wasn’t for me. Too many risks. I then began obsessively researching PFO closure the same way I would do background research for a script. I sat up at nights reading medical articles and pouring over patient stories. I contacted different doctors around the world and finally joined an online support group for PFO sufferers. It’s here I read about a patient who was struggling with the side effects of her closure device. In her post she wrote, “I wish I had fought harder for NobleStitch.”
Another PFO closure option
NobleStitch? What on earth is that? More research and I found out. It’s the same catheter-based procedure as PFO closure, but instead of using a metal device to close the PFO, they achieve the same result with a stitch. No device and a much quicker recovery. This looked promising. After reading various studies, I was elated. The results looked positive.
But my jubilation was short-lived. NobleStitch is still in clinic trials and only performed by a handful of doctors in Europe and one in the United States — Jim Thompson, MD, in Virginia. How was I ever going to get it? I thought, to hell with it, I’d just track down Dr. Thompson and call him. Surprisingly, he answered, and even though I caught him on the rowing machine at the gym, he made time to talk to me.
Over the next few weeks, I tracked down and spoke to dozens of NobleStitch patients, most of them stroke survivors. All said they’d sailed through closure and none, not a single one, had suffered any complications. All felt blessed that they were device-free and all wished they’d got closure before their stroke.
So that was it! I booked it in! Somehow, I was going to get to Virginia and get this treatment.
My friends and family thought I was crazy. But by this stage I was so well-informed. I felt like I could just about perform the procedure myself. I needed to trust myself. This was my decision and I was sticking to it!
As I took off for Virginia, I must admit I was filled with a sense of dread: What happens if something goes wrong? You’re so far from home. What if you don’t like your doctor? But when I finally met Dr. Thompson in person, my fears were allayed. He was warm and friendly, with a great sense of humor and a down-to-earth charm. But what I appreciated most was that he listened to me. I mean really listened. I apologized for my prepared very long list of questions and he said don’t apologize; there’s no limit on questions! I knew straight away that I was in excellent hands.
On the morning of my procedure, I was weirdly calm, but as soon as I got into my hospital gown and hooked up to an IV, my fears came flooding back full force. Having a catheter threaded through a vein in your groin, all the way to your heart, while you’re awake is not a great thought. But the wonderful staff at Inova were so kind and reassuring and I never once felt like a number.
Life after NobleStitch
As soon as it was over, I noticed that for the first time in my life I couldn’t feel my heart flopping in my chest. I had always thought everyone could feel it. But now it’s so still and silent. It’s actually kind of creepy. I keep checking my pulse and, thankfully, it’s still there, so I know I’m alive.
My recovery was rapid. I had had a heart procedure in the morning and went home from the hospital that same night. The next day, I was out sightseeing around Washington.
Since my closure, other migraine, stroke and PFO sufferers from all over Australia have reached out to me, desperate to get closure but not wanting a device. Traveling to Virginia or Europe, financially or practically, is not an option for most. I really hope my case will bring a new awareness to the doctors here in Australia and be the catalyst to getting a trial started.
NobleStitch was the right decision for me. There are no words to express what it has meant to me — to be free from the fear of stroke, free from my migraines and free from having a permanent metal device in my heart.
I remember the night before my operation, in a moment when I was overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty, one of the wonderful ladies on the PFO support group told me that, “courage is moving forward in spite of fear,” and this is what this journey has taught me. Not only is my heart fixed, but it has imbued me with a sense of confidence in my decisions, in my ability to cope with adversity, to questions things and stand up for myself and, most importantly, a freedom to get on and live life to the fullest.
Why Inova for NobleStitch?
Learn more about the groundbreaking procedure at Inova.