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Melissa’s Open Heart Story

I’d like to dedicate this post in honor of Go Red For Women!   And thank Melissa so much for sharing her story :)  Join us in wearing red today.

Friends, I want you to meet Melissa.  I haven’t officially met her in person, but our mutual friend, Megan who blogs at, sort of “set us up” if you will.  I was given Melissa’s Instagram and she mine…and we’ve been talking back and forth ever since.  I love her story so much, and can’t wait to meet her in person someday…maybe to walk along side her in the next Heart Walk she does!

All photos are property of Melissa Nam, as well as photo credit to photographer Jessica Hardy.

{A little about me… I had open heart surgery in October of 2009. I was born with a congenital heart defect that until I was 25, was thought to be a) still there and b) not causing me any problems. As it turns out, neither were the case. My heart murmur {VSD, or ventricular septal defect aka hole in the septum that separates the right and left ventricles of my heart} had in fact closed at some point but in doing so, it did not close properly and caused a bunch of scar tissue build up that was acting like a vise around the right side of my heart. The surgeon at UCLA described it like a napkin ring that was not allowing the necessary expansion and contraction of my heart to occur, causing the right side to become quite enlarged. Blood flow was not occurring properly, and I started to experience severe heart palpitations in September of 2009. My heart was working overtime and the specialists at UCLA were certain that at some point my heart would give out and I would either suffer a massive stroke, heart attack or worse. So, heart surgery it was.

After surgery in the hospital.

As you can imagine, having such an invasive and serious surgery, especially at my age, was a defining time in my life. I was acutely fearful of dying on the table, and the month leading up to my surgery was one of the most trying months of my life. It all felt so surreal. Not only was it an intensely emotional and physical journey, but the 8-inch scar down the center of my chest has really taken some getting used to.  I subsequently had a pacemaker implanted in June of 2010 to further correct some residual heart complications, and I am happy to report that I am now ticking away at a steady 80 bpm. I am healthy, I am strong and I am a survivor. }


From her blog   And the Beat Goes On

“Don’t let your struggle become your identity.”

I saw the above quote on Pinterest today and it really stuck with me. So much so that I decided to explore it with a blog post. I’ve struggled with this very thing for years and although it’s oftentimes much easier said than done, I would love to get to that point. The point of “I am what I choose to become, not what has happened to me.” (Thank you, Carl Jung). How does one go about riding that fine line of not forgetting what’s happened but rather actively choosing to allow your hardships to make you stronger while not becoming all that you are?

I know so many people who have endured and survived some very hard things: medical setbacks, the loss of loved ones, severe emotional crises, financial ruin, etc. As one can imagine, these events are life altering and sometimes, you find that you’re not quite the same on the other side. How do you go about rectifying the “new you” with the “old you?” How do you remain true to yourself and the changes you’ve undergone while somehow managing to hold on to portions of who you used to be, the attributes you don’t want to lose? How do you accept who you are now, and what happens if who you are now isn’t who some people in your life want you to be?

I talk about my heart a lot. I talk about it because my heart surgery was a defining moment in my life. I talk about it because I want to spread heart disease awareness. I talk about it because my talking about it serves as a way for me to process what I’ve been through — because who I am now isn’t who I was before October 29, 2009. I am fundamentally different. While I am strong because I survived something I never thought I’d have to go through, I’m also filled with a fear that is hard to name. I’m afraid of what the future holds for me medically because while I’m doing well now, my good health can change on a dime. I know that now. The veil of denial that so many young people are blessed with has been quite unceremoniously removed from over my eyes.

In 2009, I was forced to face a medical nightmare as an otherwise healthy 25 year old. It happens. Healthy people get sick, often out of the blue. And guess what? You have no other choice but to face it, deal with it, hope to God you get through it and then…you’re expected to carry on. Like nothing happened – pick up right where you left off – as if your life is unchanged except for that nasty little blip of time when everything about it was different. It doesn’t work that way. And the thing is, I fervently wish, with everything I am, that I could find the Melissa from early 2009. I wish I could magically conjure her back from wherever it is that she disappeared to, because I really miss her. But I can’t. Because that girl doesn’t exist anymore.That girl all but disappeared the moment she was told she needed to have open heart surgery. She receded further back into the shadows when she was in so much physical pain post-surgery that she could scarcely breathe; further still when she was so anxiety ridden and fearful that she would die that she had to be put on anxiety medication for a full year because she couldn’t handle the stress on her own and neither could her healing heart. That Melissa, the young woman I had been slowly growing into from birth, was truly merely a glimmer by the time she had her pacemaker implanted in June of 2010. It was a sad realization, and in many ways, I felt completely lost. I didn’t recognize myself. Can you imagine a time in your life when you honestly didn’t know who you were anymore because what had happened to you changed you so much? If you can, I am so very sorry. If you can’t, I sincerely hope you never have to.

Jason and myself, summer 2013

It took a long time and it was a difficult journey (filled with a lot of unforeseen challenges both related and unrelated to my heart surgery), but I realized that I had to rebuild. I couldn’t and I wouldn’t allow this hollowed out person to be who I was for the rest of my life. I owed it to myself, to my husband Jason and to my family and friends, to figure out who I was again and embrace her, scars and all.

The Melissa I am now is quite different from the Melissa I once was. It’s probably not something that the average acquaintance would even notice, and the people who have just met me think this is the original because it’s who they know. But those closest to me have most likely noticed a change. I’m happy to say that the Melissa I am today is more stable than the Melissa who emerged from the operating room in ’09 and continued to stick around through the summer of 2012. She was a mess and in all honesty, I wasn’t very fond of her. To her credit, that particular Melissa went through a hard time and although I wish she would have handled some things differently, I’m starting to accept that she did the best she could. I have to forgive her for her mistakes, because I can’t go back and fix them. All I can do is move forward with what I’ve salvaged and what I’ve rebuilt. Indeed, I’ve fought hard to dig deep and find the aspects of the old Melissa that I loved and were most “me” but not all the change has been negative. On the contrary, I’m less “glass is half empty” than I was, and I’m learning to appreciate the moment, find joy in the mundane. Because this life is beautiful and I cannot take it for granted.

October 2013, 4 years after surgery

So, what if the Melissa I’ve become is disappointing to some people? What if I’ve changed too much for some people to handle? {To be clear, this isn’t an issue I’m aware of, at least not to my knowledge, but I’m sure there are some people in my life who wish the “old Melissa” would come back. Maybe she was more fun, less serious, etc. I’m simply pondering a question I often find myself worrying about…big surprise} I just advised someone else earlier today that all they have to do is be true to themselves and own who they are, and the rest will fall in to place. I think it’s time I started taking my own advice. All I can do is be me and be the very best me possible. I’m sorry if I’m not who I used to be and like I said, I wish I could find her again as it would make things so much easier but that’s not possible and I have to learn to accept who I am now and who I’ve become as a result of what I’ve been handed in this life. I can choose to fully embrace this person I’ve become and work towards building a happy future with her, or I can continue to search aimlessly for the girl I used to be, wishing I could find her, spending my life pining for someone who is lost. Personally, I’d much rather remember the old Melissa with fondness but appreciate the Melissa I’ve become and accept her into my heart with open arms. Because the truth of the matter is, everyone evolves. Everyone changes throughout their lives. Some people are thrust in to change by happenstance while some people gradually change over time. But truth be told, we are all made up of our past selves. They are part of who we are and who we will become down the road.

Six months post-op, in April of 2010, Photo by Jessica Hardy.

I suppose this all means I’m a work in progress. I suppose I need to choose, every day, to not let my struggles define me. They are part of me, sure, but I’m so much more than that. I am worth more than that and I intend to keep repairing the damage that was wrought in 2009. I’ll get there, I’m sure of it. I like this new Melissa. She has her moments of doubt but overall, she’s strong and I’m proud of that.

Published inFamily and FriendsHeart to HeartInspire

6 comments on “Melissa’s Open Heart Story

  1. Melissa N. on said:

    What an honor! Thank you for sharing my story, Heidi, and I am so excited for the day that we actually get to meet…in real life! 😉 Love ya, heart sister!

  2. Heidi,
    I am sitting here crying my eyes out! So much similarity to you. You are not alone in your journey honey and I am so glad you have others to communicate with that have gone through your experience. Enjoy your journey in life!!! God gave you this experience for a reason, treasure it always!!!
    I love you!

  3. lori ames on said:

    Beautiful.thanks for sharing.

  4. Love you two!!

  5. As you know, my heart has and always be beating right beside you. After all, you are my gift, my love, my angel, my "Munchie", my daughter! Even though I was by your side, through this unexpected journey of your life, it still stops me in my own tracks as on said:

  6. As you know, my heart has and always been beating right beside you. After all, you are my gift, my love, my angel, my "Munchie", my daughter! Even though I was by your side, through this unexpected journey of your life, it still stops me in my own tracks on said:

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