The Heart of a Mother

January 9, 2024

Gabidi Afridi didn’t have time for a heart attack. The 45-year-old divorced mother had a busy job as a pediatric speech therapist and two teenage girls and a 6-year-old boy at home. But last fall, she began noticing shortness of breath. “My clients are little children,” Afridi says. “In order for me to do my job, I have to be energetic. I was having trouble breathing, but I thought it was allergies. Who has time to check that out?”

On December 12, 2022, on her way to work, she could barely breathe. She also felt a burning sensation in her esophagus, near the base of her throat.

Luckily, help was nearby. Afridi lives in Encino, near Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center, so she canceled her work appointments and drove herself to the emergency department. “I was fighting to breathe,” she says, “to the point where the security guard asked if I needed a wheelchair.”

The medical center’s Heart and Vascular Institute brings advanced treatment directly to the San Fernando Valley and surrounding communities. “Through our affiliation with the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai,” says Azmi Atiya, MD, chief of cardiac surgery at Cedars-Sinai Tarzana, “we have some of the strongest and brightest surgeons and cardiologists in the country. And yet Tarzana is easily accessible—right off the freeway. This affiliation elevates everybody’s care.”

Tests showed she had high blood levels of troponin, a protein released into the blood when the heart has been damaged. Afridi has diabetes and, as Dr. Atiya says, people with the condition do not typically experience chest pain during a heart attack. What’s more, he says, women often don’t experience chest pain as a signal of heart trouble; shortness of breath is more common.

A cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Atiya focuses on minimally invasive mitral and aortic valve surgery, in which smaller incisions on the side of a patient’s chest eliminate the need to cut open the sternum. This means less pain and much faster recovery time. In Afridi’s case, an angiogram revealed that two of the arteries leading to her heart were almost completely blocked, requiring open-heart surgery.

Heart disease runs in her family, and Afridi has lost two of her seven brothers, one to a heart attack at age 50. For her, 45 felt so young. So much was going through her mind. “I was thinking my life is over,” she says. “What about my kids? What if I can’t hug them one last time?”

Even through her fear, she was a mother first. “God forbid something happens to me,” she thought. “No one knows where I’ve put things.” She sent a whole list of instructions and passwords to her sister, who hurried over to the hospital. “Did I take care of everything the kids might need?” she wondered.

Dr. Atiya shares that some nervousness is expected when a patient is having cardiac surgery. “My staff and I reassure them everything’s going to be okay,” he says. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and Tarzana offers great care. And when they go home, we reassure them they’ll still have the support. We don’t do the surgery and then go away.”

As patients get stronger, Dr. Atiya says, Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana is there to help them learn new habits and continue cardiac rehab and physical therapy. “It’s not just for the two or three weeks they may attend cardiac rehab,” says Dr. Atiya. “It’s hopefully for a lifetime of trying to stay healthy, whether returning to a favorite activity of walking, light jogging or running a marathon. We teach them it’s all attainable, and you should be able to get back to your normal routine.”

“It’s just like life,” says Dr. Atiya. “A big part of how we succeed is our psyche. If you are depressed and angry, you might not do as well as someone who’s like, ‘Just get it done, doc. I’m ready to do it.’ Those people recover much faster than someone who’s not motivated to get better.”

Afridi still has a lot of healing to do, but she is certainly motivated. Two weeks after surgery, she took her three kids on a long-planned ski trip to Canada. She stayed indoors, walking and recovering, while the family tried skiing for the first time.

“I was supposed to be dead,” Afridi says. “My kids were not supposed to have a mother. And Dr. Atiya very nonchalantly, with a smile on his face, put me back together and said, ‘Go on, be a mommy. Continue on. You’re fine.’"

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