Dawn Dipzinski looked like the last person who would suffer a heart attack.
Slender and fit, the 50-year-old woman had it all under control—going full throttle at home and work, enjoying life, eating healthy and staying active.
When the pain struck her chest, she first thought about heartburn, not heart disease.
“I thought I must have put too many hot peppers on that Jimmy Johns sub,” she said.
But the pain grew so intense, she slid to the floor of her office bathroom.
“I thought this isn’t really heartburn,” she said. “I felt like there was an elephant on my chest. I couldn’t breathe.”
That was just the beginning of an ordeal that dramatically changed Dawn’s life.
She learned she has a genetic condition that affects her blood vessels—which contributed to her heart attack and led to a series of life-threatening complications.
Although she lives life at a slower pace today, she counts her blessings—as a survivor triumphing over a hard-fought battle.
“I am lucky,” she said. “I know I am super lucky. I am still living a life that I can spend with my family—and be there for them.”
Dawn’s recovery, aided by her own commitment to her health, impresses even her medical team.
“Not only is it a miracle she survived, she looks like a million dollars,” said her cardiologist, Milena Jani, MD.
‘A screaming emergency’
The crippling chest pain interrupted a busy day at work for Dawn, an interior designer, on Nov. 5, 2018. A call to the front desk led to an ambulance ride to the Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital emergency department.
At the Spectrum Heart Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, her doctors began to perform a heart catheterization to place a stent in a blocked artery.
“As soon as they did a puff of a dye, my whole artery went poof,” she said. “It became a screaming emergency.”
She suffered a spontaneous coronary artery dissection, a tear in the layers of the blood vessel, Dr. Jani said.
The surgical team immediately began to perform an emergency double bypass surgery.
“They told my husband to call my family,” she said.
The couple’s three kids and other family members and friends gathered at the hospital.
They took veins from her legs for the bypass, but one of the grafts failed.
Her doctors learned ultimately that the same issue affected the veins in her legs and her heart arteries—an abnormality in the formation of her blood vessels.
“The disease can sometimes be called fibromuscular dysplasia,” Dr. Jani said.
“Heart vessels and other vessels in the body can be affected by abnormal formation. And they are more fragile to stress.”
Her doctors put her on a heart-lung bypass machine. But by then, the lack of blood flow caused permanent damage to her left ventricle.
Five days later, her heart team performed a second open heart surgery to place an Impella pump, a device that circulated blood through her body.
The Impella remained in place 22 days, allowing her heart time to rest and recover. And in that time, her heart function improved. The ejection fraction, a measure of the amount of blood pumped, rose from 10% to about 22%. A healthy heart pumps at 55% to 60%.
A blood clot crisis
A new crisis surfaced two days after Dawn received the Impella. She developed blood clots in her right leg—blood clots are a side effect of spontaneous coronary artery dissection.
“I said I was really scared. I could feel a clot coming up my leg,” she said. “I was terrified I was going to die.”
Vascular surgeons explained she was in danger of developing compartment syndrome, which could lead to permanent muscle damage and possibly require amputation of her leg.
They performed emergency surgery to remove the clots. For three weeks, they left the wounds open, though covered in dressing, with drains to relieve the swelling.
“It was kind of a gross process, but they saved my leg, so I was very grateful,” Dawn said.
Dawn spent 47 days in the hospital, most of it lying in bed. By the time she went home, she struggled to take even a few steps with a walker.
“I was really weak,” she said. “I looked like I was 80 years old.”
She began physical therapy at home, slowly walking laps around her living room.
“My first goal was to do 10 laps in six minutes,” she said. “I could only do three. But you just keep doing it and keep practicing and it does start to come back.”
At Dr. Jani’s advice, she spent most of the winter at home to avoid exposure to communicable diseases. Her only outings were to her specialists—and she had a team of them.
Her husband, Ben, kept a spreadsheet tracking her 16 physicians in a wide range of specialties, including cardiology, vascular medicine, neurology, hematology and genetics.
In May, Dawn started going to cardiac rehabilitation, which helped her build stamina.
For Dawn, the emotional trials were as difficult as the physical ones.
“It’s so irritating when you are used to being a healthy, independent person and suddenly you are an invalid,” she said.
She was used to watching over the family—her husband, Ben, and their kids, Bennett, 24, Connor, 22, and Aubrey, 18.
Suddenly, the roles reversed, as they became her caregivers.
“We will take care of you now. We are just glad you are here,” they told her. “For a long time, they would never leave me alone.”
As she grew stronger, she focused her energy on her yard, designing a new look for the landscaping.
She exercises, using an Apple watch to carefully monitor her heart rate. She carries a small blood pressure cuff in her purse, in case she has to check her blood pressure.
And she keeps in close touch with her medical team at the Spectrum Health Advanced Heart Failure Clinic. She has an implantable defibrillator, and every week, she downloads information from it and relays it to her cardiologists.
With medication, the ejection fraction of Dawn’s heart has risen to 30%.
“We are trying to keep Dawn walking a straight path,” Dr. Jani said. “It is very hard but she does the best she can. Her heart has so little reserve.”
She praised Dawn’s commitment to monitoring her health, following her medication regimen, eating a healthy diet and exercising. Dawn’s can-do attitude has helped her adjust to life with heart disease.
“She has chosen to take control. There is nothing we tell her that is not done and on time,” Dr. Jani said. “It’s a pleasure for everybody in the clinic when they see her.”
Moving forward, Dawn hopes to raise awareness about women and heart disease, and specifically about spontaneous coronary artery dissection. And she looks for ways to balance work and life, while taking care of her heart.
“There must be a different plan for me,” she said. “God has certainly watched out for me and taken care of me through all this.”