Banister, Wall, Tile: Lessons in Persistence
The amazing healing journey that started with a child’s next footstep
Reviewed by: Patty Candelaria (patient)
Written by: Gene Lazuta
Patty is 45 years old, the mother of two, a native of El Paso, Texas, and has been a resident of Austin for the last 10 years. She’s a dyslexia therapist and one of just 1,071 teachers out of more than 320,000 in Texas who have achieved national board certification for professional teaching standards. National board-certified teachers are recognized as meeting and maintaining the highest, most rigorous standards for their profession, which is certainly a description that fits Patty. She’s a motivated, committed, loving woman of faith who has also just completed her educational diagnostician certificate, which means she’s trained to use academic records, information obtained from parents and teachers, and a range of cognitive and achievement tests to assess and diagnose learning problems in students.
“It was December 13th, just 12 days until Christmas, and I was 13 years old,” remembers Patty. “I had been so sure that, after they fixed my heart, I was going to get right up and just feel better. I was going to go out and run, play, and do everything I wanted to do. Instead, it felt like someone was sitting on my chest. My mother, father, brother, and sister all stayed with me in the hospital, day and night, rotating so someone was always there to hug me. They did everything they could possibly do for me. But if I wanted to be home for Christmas, which is all I wanted, I knew I had to get up and walk every day. And I had to do it for myself.”
Because of a congenital heart defect that her doctors and her parents originally and optimistically hoped was a “murmur that would fix itself in time,” Patty underwent her first open-heart surgery when she was 13 years old.
“I can still remember that long hallway where I set my goals,” continues Patty. “The banister, the wall, the third tile. It seemed so far away out in that hallway. Get to the third tile, maybe the fourth tile. One more step. One more. Three times a day. Four times a day. Every day. Until I finally got home on Christmas.”
Patty had her second surgery when she was 19 years old, her third at age 24. Her most recent surgery, a minimally invasive procedure during which she received a new bovine heart valve, occurred on July 28th of 2021. Her latest surgery was performed by UT Health Austin board-certified interventional cardiologist D. Byron Holt, MD, FSCAI, who serves as the Chief of Pediatric Cardiology for the Texas Center for Pediatric and Congenital Heart Disease, a clinical partnership between Dell Children’s Medical Center and UT Health Austin. Dr. Holt replaced the porcine heart valve that was supposed to have lasted Patty 15 years, but actually lasted 20 years.
While her journey has not always been easy, it has given her a unique and valuable perspective on how a serious heart condition can affect a person over the course of a lifetime. She knows and can describe what it’s like to be a patient who experiences heart care as a child, an adolescent, a young adult, and as a mother with children of her own, which she recalls was a weighty concern for a young woman looking forward to a family.
“At first, naturally,” explains Patty, “I didn’t know if I would ever be able to have kids. But after my valve repair, when I was 24, just six months after I got married, my doctor assured me that I would be fine. But still, you know, each time I was pregnant, I would ask, ‘Can you check? Okay. Now, can you check again?’ I even had Dr. Holt double-check my daughter, who is 15, and my son, who is 12, last fall because they’re both involved in sports and all the other in-school and community activities.”
When the time came, which she knew it would, for the pulmonary valve she received 20 years ago to be replaced, Patty became Dr. Holt’s oldest “pediatric” heart surgery patient. In April 2021, she told Dr. Holt she was having a little trouble finishing an entire hour of her online Zumba class. After a cardiac MRI, it was time to make a plan. As a teacher, even though her procedure would be conducted in a minimally invasive way through an artery in her leg, substantially reducing her recovery time, scheduling was a concern. Ideally, she was hoping to undergo surgery during the summer break. Even with all the preparation that was required, she went into Dell Children’s Medical Center on July 28th. It was, she shares, the best hospital experience of her life.
“Everyone was so amazing,” says Patty. “So attentive and compassionate. My husband was able to stay with me overnight. Everyone knew me and was genuinely concerned about me. You can feel it in the way they talk to you and the way they do their work, especially Dr. Holt, who is such a remarkable doctor. He communicates so well, which is probably the most important thing. It’s the relationship we have, the connection. I know he’s there for me, for whatever I need, whenever I need it. He’ll take the time to answer all my questions, and I know I can ask questions until I really understand the answers. And in two days, I was home.”
Most of us would find it difficult to imagine, if asked, what we would say to a young boy or girl facing their own heart surgery. After a lifetime of experiencing her own health issues, Patty is clear and focused in her advice.
“I would be honest and reassuring,” shares Patty. “I would let them know that right after their procedure, they are going to have some things to do that might seem like they are pretty hard. But I would tell them that I know they can do those things, because I did them. I would tell them to listen to the doctors and to do their breathing exercises, to get up when the time comes and walk, step by step, day by day even it if feels really far at first. I would encourage them to set their own goals, but also to know it’s okay to stop, it’s okay to take a breath. But then, they should keep going. They should have faith, most importantly, in themselves.”
For parents who may be helping their own children recover and thrive, her advice is equally concise.
“There will be times when your child will be sad,” she says. “It’s natural, and it’s understandable. They will have just experienced something so big that it will probably be a long time before they can really comprehend it. But what they need to know, what they need to believe, is that you, their mother, their father, you are on this journey with them. When I was sad, my mom would hold me, she would hug me. She comforted me, and she assured me that everything was going to be okay. She made sure I knew she was going to be there with me. And then, when the time came for a walk, she made sure I knew that she was going to be there with me every step of the way.”