In February of 1998, I became that woman. I was a 21-year-old newlywed, trying to finish nursing school and navigate marriage and life. I had a history. This history of chest pain, fainting and exhaustion had been diagnosed as a treatable valve issue. Doctors said I would “grow out of it.” But that year everything changed. One doctor visit revealed something very serious. This was no longer a simple, treatable valve issue. The valve was just a side effect. I had a hole in my heart. I was being handed a red dress on a hanger, and I didn’t want to wear it.
This large hole was between the top two chambers of my heart. Tests were performed, and the diagnosis made. I needed open heart surgery, and I needed it soon. I balked and stated that since this was a congenital issue, I had made it 21 years, and I was convinced I would make it 3 more months. I wouldn’t consider a surgery date until after May 17—my second wedding anniversary. I was scheduled to graduate from nursing school in early May, and my husband and I had planned a celebratory graduation/anniversary trip to Niagara Falls. I began to call it my “Happy Graduation, Happy Anniversary, Hope I Don’t Die” trip. He hated that. And I hated that dress.
Three long, stressful months of doctors’ appointments followed, and I finished nursing school. I graduated, and we embarked on a 5-day trip to celebrate, and to take our minds off what lay ahead. While working in the hospital prior to graduation, I found a surgeon who was performing a new procedure. He was going to cut between my ribs, making a window into my heart and patching the defect. He accepted me as a patient, and I could breathe a little easier. As a soon-to-be 22-year-old, I did not want my sternum cracked. I did not want the long recovery or the scars to go with it. The recovery would be short, and the scar would be hidden. I was grateful. I still resented the red dress.
We returned from our trip the day after our anniversary, and the next morning I arrived at the hospital. Surgery was uneventful and the recovery was as promised, short and brief. I felt like a new person! Who knew you could have so much energy? I barely considered the red dress. I didn’t look like the typical woman who had experienced a form of heart disease. But all that changed.
Fast forward, 6 years and the birth of 3 children later. I was tired, and experiencing chest pain. A doctor’s appointment was necessary, and I suspected the patch placed years earlier must be leaking. It wasn’t. We found out that the patch had not covered the hole; it had just diverted blood flow from an artery that was in the wrong place. This bridge had allowed scar tissue to form. My heart was in bad shape. This time I wouldn’t escape the awful surgery, the scars, or the recovery.
The red dress was coming out of the back of the closet.
I was devastated. I didn’t want to wear that red dress. Why me? What about my children, my husband, my future? I was afraid I would die and they would have to live without me.
But I didn’t, and they didn’t. I survived. A brilliant and caring team took me apart and put me back together. Years later, one doctor remarked that, if not for the scar down my chest, no one looking at my heart and its many scans and tests would ever be able to tell my story.
But I can tell you what my story was and is. It’s the story of a young woman who donned a red dress she didn’t like or want. It’s the story of a young mother who hated that red dress and feared it would take her hopes and dreams from her. It’s the story of an older, wiser woman who has seen the hand of God in every step she has taken, from the time she saw that red dress hanging on the hanger, until today. Today I wear that red dress with pride. Today, as the scar, though faded, still shows above the neckline of that red dress, I can say, “It is well.”
I wear that dress proudly. I wouldn’t have you wear one, but if you must, I would tell you that it’s okay. Take it off the hanger and put it on. If He hands you a red dress, you can handle it. He can handle it.
February is American Heart month and everyone (especially women) is encouraged to wear red to raise and spread awareness regarding heart disease in women. Today, 1 in every 150 adults is expected to have some form of congenital heart disease. (“2020 Heart Disease & Stroke Statistical Update.” 2020). American Heart Association.Website: www.heart.org.
Heather Ellison is a mother of 3, a wife of 1, and daughter of the King who loves her. She has found Him faithful and true. She will serve Him all her days alongside her husband of almost 25 years. She loves to write, and blogs at TheCircleELife.com to tell stories about life on a farm and how they encourage their faith.