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Wofford student blogs about her recovery from heart surgery

By Jenny Arnold
For the Herald-Journal
Saturday, January 25, 2014


Wofford College student Katherine Buchanan knew something was wrong when she had to stop for rest every 100 feet or so during a hike with friends last summer.

She had been feeling tired before, but after the troublesome hike, she knew she had to see a doctor.

Buchanan, 19, a French major also considering a double major in religion, was born with a cleft mitral valve and atrial septal defect in her heart. The conditions were corrected with surgery when she was 18 months old.

“I always assumed I was cured for life,” she said.

After visits with a cardiology specialist in Atlanta, the normally active, healthy college sophomore learned that rather than a one-time defect, she had congenital heart disease.

“I was not expecting it to be anything major,” Buchanan said. “I had a severe leak in the valve.”

Rather than pumping blood through the entire heart, blood accumulated in her lungs, making breathing difficult.

On Dec. 12, she underwent open heart surgery to receive a bovine mitral valve replacement. The valve is part cow and enhanced by technology, sort of a bionic heart, Buchanan says with a smile.

Buchanan and her family were surprised to learn of her condition after she went nearly 20 years without any heart problems. While researching heart issues in young adults, she quickly learned that there aren't a lot of well known support groups or resources for her age group. Most are geared toward older adults.

Buchanan found the Adult Congenital Heart Association and spoke with an ambassador for the organization who was in her late 20s and had a similar experience.

“It was cool to know I wasn't alone,” Buchanan said. “She was extremely helpful because it's just nerve-wracking. You don't know what's going to happen.”

After bonding with her ambassador and reading about heart surgery survivors her age, Buchanan was inspired to reach out to others. Each January at Wofford, students either take special interim courses for the month, travel abroad or do an independent study project.

Buchanan was in the hospital for six days after her Dec. 12 open heart surgery and was unable to travel or even come to class at first, so she decided to start a blog - “Heart of a Zipper Sister.” The zipper referring to the scar those who have undergone heart surgery have on their chests.

What she wanted to stress as she blogged every day during her recovery was the strides she was making to give other young adults with heart disease hope and support.

After surgery, Buchanan lived with her parents in Greenville and at first, couldn't even make breakfast for herself. But she said she got stronger every day and walked two miles on a treadmill just a month after surgery. She's now allowed to lift between 20 and 40 pounds, rather than just 10 pounds. Last week, she beamed as she talked about being released to drive and about moving back on campus next month.

Christi Sellars, a music instructor at Wofford, has taught Buchanan in class as well as with the Gold Tones, a female a capella group on campus. Sellars worked with Buchanan in putting together a proposal for her independent study.

“It was cool to know I wasn't alone,” Buchanan said. “She was extremely helpful because it's just nerve-wracking. You don't know what's going to happen.”

After bonding with her ambassador and reading about heart surgery survivors her age, Buchanan was inspired to reach out to others. Each January at Wofford, students either take special interim courses for the month, travel abroad or do an independent study project.

Buchanan was in the hospital for six days after her Dec. 12 open heart surgery and was unable to travel or even come to class at first, so she decided to start a blog - “Heart of a Zipper Sister.” The zipper referring to the scar those who have undergone heart surgery have on their chests.

What she wanted to stress as she blogged every day during her recovery was the strides she was making to give other young adults with heart disease hope and support.

After surgery, Buchanan lived with her parents in Greenville and at first, couldn't even make breakfast for herself. But she said she got stronger every day and walked two miles on a treadmill just a month after surgery. She's now allowed to lift between 20 and 40 pounds, rather than just 10 pounds. Last week, she beamed as she talked about being released to drive and about moving back on campus next month.

Christi Sellars, a music instructor at Wofford, has taught Buchanan in class as well as with the Gold Tones, a female a capella group on campus. Sellars worked with Buchanan in putting together a proposal for her independent study.