Barbara H. McNeely

Author, Coach & Publisher

Category: Open Hearts

Aortic Stenosis Symptoms – What are they?

What are the symptoms of Aortic Stenosis?

What are the symptoms of Aortic Stenosis?

A friend of mine contacted me this week wanting to know the symptoms of aortic stenosis. In case you’re new to my blog, I had my aortic valve replaced in May of 2015 because of severe aortic stenosis. The friend was concerned because, like me, she had other family members who had undergone the surgery. She was experiencing occasional shortness of breath when climbing stairs and wondered if she should be concerned about it.

Let me start by answering the initial question. The symptoms of aortic stenosis, according to my cardiologist, are shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, passing out, and swelling in feet. I would imagine that they don’t all come on at one time nor are they all always present. In fact, for me, there was no chest pain, dizziness or passing out.

Should my friend worry? No. Do not worry. That reminds me of the movie “Bridge of Spies” about a man named Rudolf Abel. He was a KGB undercover agent in North America for a period of time following World War II. Several times in the movie he was in impossible situations. Such as when he was on trial for crimes against the US and his life was in the balance. Each time, people would ask him, “Are you worried?” His response was to shrug his shoulders and say “Would it help?” So, no, never worry.

Should she be concerned? Perhaps. But lets look at some of the possible causes of shortness of breath – there are many. They include asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, pneumothorax, anemia, lung cancer, inhalation injury, pulmonary embolism, anxiety, COPD, congestive heart failure, arrhythmia, allergic reaction, anaphylaxis, obesity, tuberculosis, emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis, pulmonary artery hypertension, pleurisy, croup, Guillain-Barré syndrome, sarcoidosis, rib fracture, carbon monoxide poisoning, and aerobic exercise. Yikes! That is one long list. And that list isn’t complete. I omitted the ones I couldn’t pronounce.

Notice that the list includes some really nasty, scary things as well as some innocuous things like aerobic exercise.

Should she have it checked out? Absolutely! It is not something to be ignored. I would suggest talking it over with your doctor. Especially mentioning the family history of aortic valve problems. In fact, it may be time for that first visit to a cardiologist. It’s a good idea to see one beginning about age fifty. Just to get a baseline. And to discuss your family’s heart health history.

Is aortic stenosis hereditary? In fact, it just might be. I found a study in Johns Hopkins Medicine that suggests it could be:

Researchers have found a genetic variant that doubles the likelihood that people will have calcium deposits on their aortic valve. Such calcification, if it becomes severe, can cause narrowing or a blockage of the aortic valve, a condition called aortic stenosis.

I’m always happy to answer questions. Do you have any questions for me? Leave them in the comments below.

What Have I Been Up To?

What has Barbara been up to?

What has Barbara been up to?

I know I haven’t written here for a while. I had every intention to, but I’ve been working on getting myself organized. Each week there was a reminder to write here. And each week it would get pushed off until the next week. Until, one day I realize it has been over 2 months since I’ve posted anything. So…

Here I am.


With an update on some of what I’ve been doing. First the yoga:
I am now in my fourth month of doing yoga. I can tell in many ways that I am building strength. I’ve also seen improvement in various pains. Most notable is something that my orthopod called trochanteric bursitis. The trochanter is the part of the femur that connects to the hip bone. This was good news to me. I was convinced that the hip pain I’ve been experiencing was caused by osteoarthritis. My orthopod gave me exercises to do. And it turns out that the therapeutic yoga that I am doing is the same exercise. And the pain is diminished. It has been many weeks since it kept me up at night. So I continue the yoga at least 3 times a week.

The List Junkies List Journal Cover

The List Junkies List Journal Cover

Creating Journals

I have also been learning how to create journals that can be put on sale at Amazon! How cool is that? Or are you wondering what a journal is? Journals can be many different things. If you’re curious, you can check them out on Amazon by entering “journals in the search box. Basically, a journal can be like a blank or lined journal but it might have additional prompts or information. There are gratitude journals, tracking journals, journals for grief, and many more. I have created one journal already titled “The List Junkie’s List Journal.” If you’re someone who’d makes all sorts of lists, this journal is a good resource. It lets you keep all of your lists together in one book! It was mostly done for practice. Because I have bigger plans for journals! You’ll be hearing about them soon.

The List Junkies List Journal Back Cover

The List Junkies List Journal Back Cover


In addition, I have been writing a book. I’ve been working on it for more than a year. The reality is that it should have been finished long ago. But it has been very hard to write this first book. The good news is that I have made a commitment to have the first draft completed by November 17th! So I decided to make that commitment public. Will I make that deadline? That is my intention. I’m going away this week on a private retreat. I plan to do a lot of writing while I’m going. I’ll report back later on my progress.

What’s that? You want to know what the book is about? I’ll give you a hint. The working title is “Lessons of an Opening Heart.”

Keep me in your thoughts. I’ll report back here soon on my progress!

Letting It All Hang Out

Nancy - Letting It All Hang Out

Nancy – Letting It All Hang Out

I woke up Wednesday morning with the song “Pomp & Circumstance” running through my head. You know it, right? The song they play at graduations? In a sense it was graduation day for me, but not your typical graduation. I dressed in workout clothes, rather than a cap and gown. And at the end of my workout, after they took my blood pressure one last time, I received my certificate of completion from Cardiac Rehab.

Unless you’ve done it yourself or know someone who has, you’re probably wondering what Cardiac Rehab is. I certainly didn’t know much about it. I remember after my father’s aortic valve replacement he was supposed to go to Cardiac Rehab. But he never did. He was convinced he could do as well on his own.

What is cardiac rehab? According to NIH: “Cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) is a medically supervised program that helps improve the health and well-being of people who have heart problems. Rehab programs include exercise training, education on heart healthy living, and counseling to reduce stress and help you return to an active life.” It’s recommended for anyone who has had a heart attack, heart surgery, angioplasty or a stent.

For me, it was a twelve-week program. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I left home at 6:15 AM to go to Cardiac Rehab. I rode a stationary bike, worked out on the NuStep, used an arm bike, did resistance training, and occasionally walked a treadmill. The staff took blood pressure before, during, and after my workout. I wore a heart monitor while exercising as well. Gradually, they increased the time and intensity of my workouts. There were as many as twelve people in our class. The majority were male but the age differences were vast. There were people that looked to be in the 20s or 30s on up to 70-80 year olds. All shapes and sizes as well.

I was at first reluctant to do the full program. I thought I could go for a while and then transition to working out somewhere closer to home. Eventually, I committed to completing the program and even attended the education day.

Wednesday, November 4th, was my last day. My thirty-sixth visit! And it was a major triumph, something I decided I would finish no matter what. My knee pain from a torn meniscus returned towards the end so I limped into rehab the last four days. But I finished. I got my certificate. And I was told not to come back. In the most loving way, of course. I could go on about rehab but will save that for another day. I definitely recommend it to anyone in the position of needing it.

So. I finished rehab Wednesday morning and I expected to feel, what? What I most want to feel is energetic and ready to run a marathon. Ha, ha. Not really. I’m not a runner. While I feel good in many ways, I don’t feel as great as I want to.

I’m often asked how I’m doing following surgery, I want to reply “Fine as frogs’ hair!” – a saying a friend of mine used to use a lot. And it’s partially true. I know that I’m healing nicely from the surgery, but that it takes time. The ribs still hurt when I take a deep breath, but sneezes rarely hurt anymore. I was told that it could take up to a year to fully recover from open heart surgery. So, that means I still have nearly seven months of healing. Recently, I noticed a small, sometimes painful knot on my sternum that took me back to my surgeon. She thinks it’s a granuloma caused by either a stitch or wire that’s irritating surrounding tissue. She has left it up to me what to do with it so it’s kind of wait and see for now. It depends on how much it bothers me.

There are other issues holding me back. In an ideal world this would not happen. In an ideal world, I would only ever have to deal with, AT MOST, one health issue at a time. But that’s never the case. So my elation at finishing rehab is tarnished by other issues. Before I go on, I want to say I’m not writing this for sympathy. I’m really hoping for solutions. Kind of crowd-sourcing it, if you will. I’m listing the issues below and I will be posting here on my progress at resolving them.

Left Knee – Torn Meniscus

I’ve known since April 1 that there was a tear in the meniscus of my left knee. And I’m here to tell you that it is absolutely no fun. I got a steroid shot in April and between the shot and the down time recuperating from open heart surgery, it didn’t bother me too much. Until last week. Now it is painful each and every step. AND, because of the heart condition, I cannot take any NSAIDs. So it’s Tylenol or aspirin. Earlier this week I had a brief Healing Touch session. Someone also recommended Curamin – a particular brand of turmeric that also contains Boswellia.

I see a new orthopedist next week. The one I saw in April was too, too liberal with his use of the word ‘surgery.’ I’m pretty sure now that surgery will be required. Definitely not something I’m looking forward to. It’s much too soon since my last surgery. But, I need to be able to walk and go up & down stairs. I’m also dealing with pain from the right knee, but I am suspecting (hoping?) that it is a result of favoring the left knee.

In spite of these issues, I am now riding my stationary bike every morning. Walking is painful, but the bike is not. I’ve worked three months building strength and stamina and am not going to lose that momentum now.

Chronic Inflammation

This has been an issue for a while and is very noticeable by the swelling in my feet & ankles. I had thought that it was related to the bad aortic valve, but that was only partially true. Inflammation seems to be one of those topics that everyone has an opinion on, which makes it hard to sort through everything to determine what is going on. A friend posted a link to a ginger ale recipe that is said to be good for migraines, inflammation, and pain. I’m trying that now and will see how that helps things.

Lymph Blockage

The lymph blockage and inflammation and water retention could well be part of the same problem. I know this is true, but still need to sort it out. I can tell you that I’ve had some real problems with lymph nodes in the arm pits ever since surgery.


This week I’ve brought in Healing Touch, turmeric, and ginger. And I’m happy to report that I have seen relief from the knee pain. It’s not gone, but not every step is painful now. Since I can’t know which treatment brought relief, I’ll continue all of them for now.

As I said, I didn’t write all of this to garner attention or sympathy. Support and suggestions are what I would love to have. So, if you have suggestions, leave them in the comments below.

Balloon Therapy

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta - Early Morning Balloons

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta – Early Morning Balloons

I am writing this blog post on the eve of the five month anniversary of my open heart surgery. It will publish on that anniversary. This trip was both recovery therapy and a renewal for me. I have now dubbed it the best vacation ever and cannot figure out why we’ve never made a trip like that before. But, rest assured,I have plans for other such trips in the future. Perhaps the best part of the trip was that I often felt as though I should pinch myself to be sure it was all real. Most of the time, it was hard to believe that I was the same girl who had undergone open heart surgery so recently! I even asked my husband at one point, as we walked the entire Balloon Fiesta Park, why he hadn’t told me in June and July that I would be making this trip in October! There were times that I could have used that kind of encouragement.

On Saturday, October 3rd, my husband, Dick, and I set out on a road trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico. The trip was prompted by a passing conversation with a stranger back in August. The conversation mentioned the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. When vacation came up, I suggested the Balloon Fiesta.

We set out in our Explorer with my iPhone-turned-iPod loaded with almost 4,000 songs. We planned our trip route to include seeing different scenery than any previous trips – as much as possible. That first day was all driving – for twelve hours. Thanks to the tunes we had on hand, it was a pleasant drive.

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta - Lots of Balloons

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta – Lots of Balloons

On day 2, we were up super-early to go to the International Balloon Fiesta. It’s impossible to describe exactly what that was like. We watched hundreds of balloons pop up on the field and then take off into the air. We were able to walk around among the balloons. It was beautiful to watch and to marvel at the carefully organized and orchestrated chaos. If you get the chance, make a trip to the Balloon Fiesta.

We were fortunate that my husband’s daughter, Nina, once lived in Albuquerque. She had many suggestions on things to do and places to eat during our trip. We didn’t get to all of them so another trip is definitely in order.

El Santuario de Chimayo - a peaceful. sacred place

El Santuario de Chimayo – a peaceful. sacred place

On day 3 we went to Taos. We drove the High Road to Taos to get there. It was a beautiful, scenic drive. We made only one stop on the way, in the town of Chimayo, to visit El Santuario de Chimayo.

Old Church at Taos Pueblo

Old Church at Taos Pueblo

While in Taos, we toured the Taos Pueblo. It was interesting to learn of their culture and history. Nina had suggested that we check out the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. The bridge is 565 feet above the Rio Grande and is the seventh highest bridge in the U.S. I had to fight my irrational fear in order to walk partway across it. The views were beautiful.

Rio Grande Gorge - from the bridge

Rio Grande Gorge – from the bridge

Tuesday, day 4, brought us back to the Balloon Fiesta and on this day we were blessed with sunshine – which made the balloons even more beautiful. They also were able to fly higher, further, and longer than on Sunday. We also drove to Santa Fe where we shopped, ate lunch and visited the Georgia O’Keefe Museum. And randomly ran into a friend from San Antonio!

Standing On A Corner in Winslow Arizona

Standing On A Corner in Winslow Arizona

It may sound crazy, but standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona has been on my bucket list since 2007. I thought I was going to complete that item in 2013, but it didn’t quite work out. Our plans for this trip included a visit to Winslow on day 5. There really wasn’t that much to see or do in Winslow, except stand on the corner. And eat lunch.

On the way back to Albuquerque from Winslow, we stopped at the Acoma Pueblo. This was another recommendation from Nina and she encouraged us to take the tour. Sadly, we got there too late for the last tour of the day. We watched the movie that gave a history of the pueblo. The film and what we could see of the pueblo from a distance has definitely piqued our interest in going back some day soon and taking the tour. Before going to the Acoma Pueblo, we speculated on what differences we might see from one pueblo to the next. Even without the full tour, we learned that the Taos Pueblo and Acoma Pueblo are very different and it’s worth seeing both of them.

Roswell UFO Museum

Roswell UFO Museum

The last 2 days of our trip were mostly driving. We drove Highway 380 from Interstate 25 to Roswell. This was primarily a two lane road with very few other cars, a few tiny towns, and a lot of hills. It was a very long 150 plus miles that had absolutely no cell phone service most of the way. We stopped in Roswell, NM and visited the Roswell UFO Museum. Mostly for a laugh, though.

I definitely need to go back to the Balloon Fiesta. That friend I ran into in Santa Fe had gone up in a balloon. I saw one of her pictures on Facebook and realized that the absolute best balloon shots were from above! When we make that trip, we’ll also plan to tour the Acoma Pueblo.

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Darth and Yoda at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Darth and Yoda at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Acoma Pueblo

Acoma Pueblo

Conquering Stairs

This is the second landing of the stairs, complete with a folding chair.

This is the second landing of the stairs, complete with a folding chair.

We live in a two-story house. All of the bedrooms and all of the full bathrooms are on the second floor. If you want to sleep in a bed, take a shower or bath, or find your clothes then you have to climb the stairs.

Our stairs are built in 3 parts. There are seven steps from the ground floor to the first landing. Then there is a right turn and three steps to the second landing, followed by another right turn. From the second landing, it’s another 6 steps to the second floor. For a grand total of sixteen (16) steps.

I wasn’t always so intimate with our stairs. It started in 2014 with knee problems. When every step is painful, you tend to avoid stairs. It turns out that shortness of breath is even worse. The first time I went upstairs after my surgery, I climbed all 16 steps at one time. And just barely made it. I was gasping for breath, sat down the first chance I could and stayed there for ten minutes recovering.

We decided to put a folding chair on each of the stair landings. That way I could take the stairs in phases rather than all at one time; choosing to stop at either one or both landings. Don’t misunderstand me though, this did not mean that I was climbing the stairs very often. For the first few weeks following surgery, I went upstairs one or two times a day – at most. During the times that I attempted sleeping int he bed, I would make 2 trips per day. One after breakfast to shower and does and the other at bedtime. However, most of that time I was sleeping int he recliner downstairs. So, I would climb the stairs once a day to shower and dress. And I confess to having at least one day where I didn’t ever go upstairs.

I developed a routine to manage the stairs and showering and dressing. All arduous tasks at first. I had a shopping bag that was always close at hand. It contained <>. All of which, together, weighed under 5 pounds, including the current book I was reading. So I would head up stairs with my shopping bag and, of course, my heart pillow.

Nancy on the first landing of the stairs

Nancy on the first landing of the stairs

Up the first stairs to that first landing, counting out loud “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.” Turn the corner and three more steps “Eight, nine, ten.” (One of the physical therapists had suggested counting out loud because she believed my shortness of breath was caused by not breathing. My shortness of breath was not caused by not breathing, but still I would sound the stairs out loud.)

At the second landing, I would stop and sit in the folding chair. I used my phone’s timer set to five minutes and would read until the timer rang. Almost always, I had my girl cat, Nancy, with me. She tended to follow me quite a bit during those first weeks after surgery. When the five minutes was up, or sometimes later if I was in a good part of my book, I would make it up the last six steps. Then into the bedroom where I would need to sit for another few minutes.

Nancy on the second landing. Taken while I was catching my breath.

Nancy on the second landing. Taken while I was catching my breath.

So it could take me ten or fifteen minutes just to get to the shower. It’s easy to see why it could take an hour for the entire process. Everything was an effort and standing was not much of an option. Hence, there was a shower stool that got a lot of use. It rarely mattered. Unless a home health person was due or I had a doctor appointment, I had all day with not much to be done.

During this time in my recovery, I had to work hard at being positive. Everything took so much effort. Each day seemed to stretch out to double its length. And no one could tell me for sure when it would end. I saw my surgeon 6 weeks after surgery. She told me I would begin to feel better at 2 months. I was a bit dubious about that at the time. But it turned out she was correct. Shortly after the 2 month mark, I was climbing the stairs 5 & 6 times a day fairly regularly. And now, at 4 1/2 months, I don’t give the stairs much thought and am even known to take the stairs rather than an elevator!

This Is Nancy

This Is Nancy

The Choices We Make

The Choices We Make

The Choices We Make

What choices have you made today?

  • What you’ll eat for breakfast?
  • Where you’ll go for lunch?
  • What you’ll do this weekend?
  • Where you’ll vacation this summer?
  • If you’ll go to work tomorrow?

We make choices all the time. Some are easy, some are harder. Some we don’t even think of as choices. Like that last one above. It really is a choice you make each day to go to work. You may say you have to go to work, but is that your only option? It may be far and away a better choice than anything else, but it’s still a choice. Going to work changed for me the day I began to understand that it was a choice.

Yet few of those choices are considered life-or-death. Some may be and we don’t even know it. The decision to text while driving is a choice many make; one that has been known to result in death. Even though the texter isn’t consciously choosing death. I choose life, so I choose not to text while driving. That also keeps me more aware so that I can hopefully avoid those around me who have decided to text while driving.

Rare, though, are the choices we make that we know at the outset are life or death choices. I’ve had to make one of those choices in recent weeks. And the choice was easy. As I said before, I choose life.

The decision I had to make? To undergo surgery to have my aortic valve replaced. It seems I have something called Aortic Stenosis. That valve just isn’t working right, there appears to be calcium buildup, and the opening is about one-fourth of its normal size. Left untreated, it will eventually result in heart failure. So that decision is easy.

There are a lot of other decisions to make related to this surgery. Such as whether I want a tissue valve or a mechanical valve. Somehow, at this point, all the other choices become easy.

Living with the thought of impending surgery is another matter. I’ve tried to read up on the surgical procedure, but quite honestly it’s a bit scary. Just the words “open heart surgery” are scary to me. But I have an excellent surgeon and the date is set for this coming Friday – May 22, 2015. Recovery is long, but as my husband often says “It does beat the alternative!” I’ll post occasional updates here, as I am able.

So tell me, what difficult choices have you had to make?

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