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Katherine Buchanan '16

Back to the heart of life as a Zipper Sister
Katherine Buchanan 382x255
Katherine Buchanan '16 is back to being active just months after her second open heart surgery.
2014-02-11

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Katherine Buchanan ’16 is getting back to the heart of life as she prepares to return to Wofford full-time for the spring semester, following her second open heart surgery last fall. Her first was when she was an infant.

Buchanan, a French major from Greenville, S.C., has chronicled her recent journey with congenital heart disease (CHD) during the January Interim through a self-published blog, Heart of a Zipper Sister (www.heartofazippersister.blogspot.com).

That journey actually began when Buchanan, now 19 years old, was an 18-month-old toddler and underwent her first open heart surgery to correct a congenital heart defect, an atrial septal defect, which allowed the flow of blood between the left and right atria compartments of the heart. She also was diagnosed with a cleft mitral valve, which prevented the valve from closing all the way.

“I created this blog in order to offer support for others with congenital heart disease preparing for open heart surgery,” Buchanan says in one of her blog posts. “My goal is to spread the word and make more of an impact.”

As an infant, Buchanan exhibited extreme exhaustion and weakness, major symptoms of CHD. The defects were causing blood to leak into her atrium, and slowly into her lungs.

“My heart needed to work two to three times as hard as normal to get my blood to where it needed to be within the body,” she says. That first surgery patched the defected area and repaired the valve.

Then, at the beginning of the fall semester of 2013, Buchanan again began experiencing the same symptoms she had during early childhood, and again, she was diagnosed with a cleft mitral valve – the earlier repair had undone itself. Doctors said she would need a second open heart surgery, which was done in December 2013. This meant she had to juggle school, extracurricular commitments, extreme fatigue and the thought of open heart surgery at the end of the semester.

At the same time, she craved knowledge and to hear of experiences others with CHD had, especially younger patients like her. She also wanted to share her experiences with people who were going through the same thing, so she started her blog.

Initially, Buchanan had difficulty finding a community of young people with congenital heart conditions. Her cardiologist in Atlanta put her in contact with the Adult Congenital Heart Association (ACHA) and its website, www.achaheart.org. Its mission is “to improve and extend the lives of millions born with heart defects through education, advocacy and the promotion of research.”

She used ACHA’s resources to eventually find the blog of a 30-year-old woman who had the same condition. “Her blog helped me a lot when I first found it,” she says. “I knew other people would benefit from a community of shared experiences.”

Shortly after she began blogging herself, a young woman about the same age as Buchanan contacted her after reading a few of her posts. “My good was actually working,” she says.

She writes about the importance of sharing knowledge and experiences with CHD, sharing the stories of other CHD patients and the uniqueness and difficulties of their situations.

“I share this not to scare or depress, but to explain the unfair truth of this disease,” she writes. “Each CHD-er’s story is different, but it is important that the larger story of CHD is shared. I have benefited and will continue to benefit from my surgeries.”

Her blog, among other things, “seeks to be a bridge between the isolated person with congenital heart disease and the community of support and information for those with CHD,” she writes. “As I develop it I learn more and more about this community and am able to share bits of that knowledge here.”

Buchanan says her family has supported her throughout the entire process. “My family did all that they could to make sure things went smoothly for me, and they still do even after surgery. They’re an incredible support.”

Her friends at Wofford also were very understanding and provided a sense of normalcy, she says. “I was amazed and thankful at how many people reached out to me.”

“I had to focus on balance,” Buchanan says of managing her time properly during the fall semester before her surgery, living on campus with a heart condition. “Nothing really changed. My school work still came first and I still participated in other activities, as well. I just made sure I was taking care of myself to prevent further complications.”

Faced with the possibility of missing Interim because of her surgery, Buchanan talked with Wofford music professor Christi Sellars, who suggested the student “use the experience to develop an independent Interim project.”

Buchanan decided to continue her blog through January as an independent Interim project, with Sellars’ guidance.

“She has certainly been able to utilize her great organizational and communication skills,” Sellars says. “She has embraced the opportunity to help others. Her strength and compassion are evident in her handling of this difficult situation.”

Buchanan has dedicated more time to her blog and to informing and inspiring others. “I wanted to share the positives of my story,” she says. “For those born with extremely complex cases, the treatment is not always effective and the road to recovery is a steep uphill battle.”

At the end of Interim, many students have amazing stories to share. Many students speak of a new skill they learned, a priceless travel adventure, or great times with friends. Buchanan can say she has made difference in someone’s life.

“I just wanted to uplift others,” she says. “While so many strides have been made in research and CHD care, there is still a long way to go, which is why advocacy and research are so important.”

Follow Katherine Buchanan’s journey at www.heartofazippersister.blogspot.com.

By Tyrell Jemison ’14