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"I'm a Woman Who's Had Open Heart Surgery—and It Inspired a New Purpose In My Life"
"I'm a Woman Who's Had Open Heart Surgery—and It Inspired a New Purpose In My Life"
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She was supposed to have a simple procedure to fix a small hole in her heart—then learned it was actually the size of an egg and required heart surgery. Cat Oyler, Vice President of Global Public Health, Johnson & Johnson, shares her story of recovery—and why she doesn't want to be called a survivor.
Oyler gets a visit from a therapy dog following surgery

On May 1, 2017, for just over an hour, my heart was stopped.

Just before that, my breastbone was cut open. My blood was run outside my body and cooled through a cardiopulmonary bypass pump, which exchanged carbon dioxide and oxygen to keep me alive while my heart was stopped.

This allowed an extremely skilled surgeon to repair and then—importantly—restart my heart.

Earlier that year, after decades of telling doctors I had trouble breathing when I exercised, I was finally diagnosed with an Atrial Septal Defect (ASD), a hole between the left and right atrial chambers of the heart. I'd been born with the defect—which is more common in females—but it had gone undetected until last year.

This was, strangely, a relief. I had an answer to why I struggled to breathe, and there was a medical plan for solving it. And I like a good plan!

Based on a cardiac MRI, doctors believed the hole in my heart was only 1.5 cm, and could be fixed using a device designed to close ASDs. But my doctor soon discovered that the hole was actually the size of a large egg—and couldn’t be closed with this simple approach.

I needed a new plan. And that was open heart surgery.

A Humbling Walk—Then Run—to Recovery
When I woke up from the surgery, I had an IV line in my left leg, an arterial line in my left arm, an IV line in my right arm, a bladder catheter, an IV line in my jugular, two chest tubes and three pacing wires leading to my heart—and I was intubated. I didn’t know it was possible to have that many things coming out of my body at once.

When I got out of bed a couple hours later, the pain was horrific. I felt nauseous, broke out in a cold sweat and my blood pressure, previously always low, plummeted—along with my heart rate. I didn’t lose consciousness, but the machines signaled a “code,” and a team of nurses came running into the room. This “crash” happened two more times.

It was scary to be aware that something was going wrong, but not be able to do anything about it. I watched people rush around me, and listened to them deciding what to do, while my surgeon stood across the room keeping an eye on things. But I felt too weak to really even talk. I felt strangely numb.

Yet four days after my surgery, I was able to leave the hospital. I still had some fluid around my heart and in both of my lungs, so the doctors told me to walk as much as I could to get rid of it, and to prevent pneumonia and other complications.

So that's what I did.

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One week after open heart surgery, Oyler walked just over 7 miles

On the eighth day post-surgery, I walked 7 miles. Yes, I was exhausted, and scared of things I had never thought about before, like tripping—what would happen if I fell, while my chest was being held together by pieces of wire?—but I was determined to get back to activity as fast as possible.

That said, I had absolutely no upper body strength. I couldn’t open doors, pull the foil off a container of yogurt or even lift the covers over me in bed. It was humbling. But I could put one foot in front of the other.

I went to see my cardiologist for my first checkup, and proudly showed her my activity tracker. She looked at me, slightly appalled, and exclaimed, “What are you doing?” I said, “You told me to walk as much as I could!” Her reply? “I meant around the block a couple times!”

I worked extremely hard to be as strong and as healthy as I could be before my surgery. Then, I fought—every single day—to make myself even stronger and healthier after. I conquered open heart surgery. I am a fighter.

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Less than four weeks after my surgery, I walked 14.3 miles in one day. But there were also days I felt so weak that I didn’t leave my condo. And other days I tried to do too much and would need someone to literally come help carry me home.

By week six, I was allowed to start running again. By week nine, I ran 3 miles in 26 minutes and 37 seconds. Prior to surgery, the fastest I could run was a 10-minute mile, but once my ASD was closed, it was much easier for my heart to pump blood to my lungs, in turn making it easier for me to breathe while I ran. Running was actually fun for the first time in a very long time.

When I came back to work after 10 weeks, I was still tired and in a reasonable amount of pain. But as the pain got better, so did my endurance. By September, four months after my heart was stopped, I decided to start training for the Miami Half Marathon in January. I ran slowly that day, but for the rest of my life I can say that less than nine months after having open heart surgery, I ran a half-marathon.

And that’s not nothing.

A Renewed Purpose in Life
Today, I feel like myself again. I can lift weights, go to spin class and run with my dog. I've started doing Pilates and yoga, learning the value of flexibility, not just strength. I even went hiking to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda. And with my heart repaired, I had no problem hiking at high altitudes.

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Oyler on a gorilla trek in Rwanda

I’ve also started a new job as Vice President of Global Public Health for Johnson & Johnson, heading up the company's tuberculosis efforts.

When choices arise now, I ask myself, “Did I have open heart surgery for this?” And when it comes to thinking about how to help save the lives of the 1.6 million people who die from tuberculosis each year, well, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

Part of what’s amazing about this new job is that it also fully aligns with Johnson & Johnson's vision for a World Without Disease. This week, I am at The Union World Conference on Lung Health, one of the largest gatherings of clinicians and policymakers for tuberculosis and other pulmonary diseases. This follows on the heels of the first-ever United Nations high-level meeting on tuberculosis, which was kicked off by the TB Innovation Summit. At the meeting on tuberculosis, Johnson & Johnson launched a new 10-year initiative in support of global efforts to end TB.

Listening to doctors, advocates and, most importantly, patients and champions at these meetings, it is clear that innovation is essential if we are going to create a world without tuberculosis. And I am proud to have joined the team that is at the forefront of these efforts.

This past year, people have started referring to me as a survivor. I know that it’s well-meaning, but I don’t like it. It’s too passive.

I worked extremely hard to be as strong and as healthy as I could be before my surgery. Then, I fought—every single day—to make myself even stronger and healthier after. So, with all due respect, I conquered open heart surgery. I am a fighter.

And I am now using this experience to ensure that my impact on the world is as meaningful as possible—and that starts with helping people with tuberculosis fight their disease. They, too, are fighting to regain their health, sometimes taking on entire medical systems to get the care they need. There is nothing passive about their battle.

In two days, I will be leading a team in the American Heart Association’s Philadelphia Heart Walk, helping to fund the scientific advances that may someday help prevent someone else from having to go through what I did. Many of the people walking that day will also have conquered heart conditions. They have similarly fought for their health—and for their lives.

On behalf of everyone who has conquered a life-threatening disease, I say to the world: Bring. It. On.

Read more about how the company is working to improve detection, broaden access to treatment and accelerate research and development for the disease by 2030.

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