After Son's Death and Her Own Scare, Omaha Woman Spreads Message of Heart Health
Published: Feb. 27, 2020
Heart health was personal for JoAnn Smith long before she learned she had heart failure.
“I know firsthand that people can die from heart conditions,” she said.
In 2008, her 20-year-old son, Brian, went into cardiac arrest and died while on a spring break study trip in Puerto Rico. An autopsy determined his heart was badly enlarged and scarred. Had he survived, he would have needed a heart transplant. But being active and fit allowed him to live as long as he did.
“I ran with that to help me with my grief,” said JoAnn, 67.
Her own shocking diagnosis
JoAnn had always been active and watched her diet, but she redoubled her health efforts after Brian’s death. She had done Pilates and was a diligent walker and jogger. Now she pushed her cycling habit to over 100 miles a week – a strategy to deal with her emotions.
Eventually she focused more on Pilates, trading her physically demanding routine for more purposeful exercise. She became an instructor at Pilates Center of Omaha, where she’s blogged about her journey and encourages others to use Pilates to help them manage grief.
“This is another place that I have the opportunity to honor my son's memory,” she wrote. “Brian was an athlete, and very fit. His favorite sport was lacrosse. Shortly after he died, someone told me that he was impressed with my Pilates practice. I decided at that moment that this was one way I was going to honor his memory, to continue feeling connected with him.”
Despite her healthy lifestyle, last year JoAnn began to experience unusual symptoms: shortness of breath, nausea and trouble sleeping.
As they worsened, a trip to the Methodist Hospital Emergency Department in October revealed the problem.
“I was the healthy one in the family,” JoAnn said. “I didn’t smoke. I exercised. I was already on a low-sodium diet. For me to be diagnosed with heart failure was pretty shocking.”
Motivated to succeed
After treatment in the hospital, JoAnn started outpatient cardiac rehabilitation at Methodist Hospital in December. When she began, her ejection refraction – which measures how well the heart’s left ventricle pumps blood – was 15-20% (50-70% is normal).
But she had several factors working in her favor, according to Brian Choquette, BSN, RN, the nurse assigned to JoAnn. Thanks to her commitment to her health, she didn’t have muscle weakness, joint problems, diabetes or other issues that rehab patients often battle.
“In that aspect, she came here in much better shape than a lot of people,” Choquette said.
Perhaps most important was JoAnn’s positive attitude and outgoing personality. She was motivated and engaged, asking questions and interacting with staff and other patients.
And working with a nurse named Brian to strengthen her heart wasn’t lost on her.
“There’s maybe like 10 nurses, and I get Brian,” JoAnn said. “I think that’s pretty amazing.”
The heart health message
JoAnn’s recovery has been impressive. When she graduated from the program on Feb. 17, her ejection refraction had improved to 35-45%. She’s returned to the Pilates studio while continuing cardio work at the YMCA.
She credits the cardio rehab unit with helping her trust her heart again.
“Because of the cardiac rehab, I’m active again,” she said. “It got me stronger. It got me more confident. It built up my stamina. It built up my endurance.”
Doctors still don’t know why she developed heart failure, but JoAnn is focused on what she can control: honoring her son by sharing the importance of exercise and healthy habits.
“I still have a reason to be here,” she said. “And I honestly think a lot of that is to get the message out.”