For the media

Mom to miracle: How a heart attack changed one woman’s life

By The Health News Team | April 10, 2023
Kathy Corso of San Diego with San Diego cardiologist Dr. Brian Jaski

Dr. Brian Jaski (right) and his colleagues at Sharp Memorial Hospital were willing to try whatever it took to give Kathy Corso (left) her life back.

“This is not jazzercise,” Kathy Corso thought to herself as she looked through the window of Sharp Memorial Hospital’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program.

Kathy, then just 42, had been pushed up to the program’s entrance in a wheelchair by her husband, Paul Corso. She was exhausted, weak and heartbroken at finding herself in this situation. “Oh no,” she remembers thinking. “This can’t be my life.”

Twenty-five years later, Kathy, now 66, walks through those doors with confidence and an immense feeling of gratitude. She understands the alternative to that life could have easily been death.

The night that changed everything

It was a regular weekday night when Paul and Kathy took their son, Jacob, age 6 at the time, to dinner. Kathy’s jaw began to tingle, and she says she felt “very strange, tired.”

Noting that she had a pain in the left side of her chest that was progressively worsening, and both of her arms felt numb, the couple decided they needed to get to a hospital as soon as possible. They began driving, but Kathy’s sudden sense that she was “not going to make it” literally stopped them in their tracks. Paul anxiously dialed 911 and they turned the car around and raced back home to meet the ambulance. Within minutes, Kathy was being sped to Sharp Memorial.

“My mom was a nurse and she used to tell me, ‘If you ever have any kind of heart issue, you should go to Sharp,’” Kathy says. “And luckily, that’s where the ambulance took me.”

Told she was having a massive heart attack, Kathy was put into a drug-induced coma and attached to a ventilator in hopes her heart, brain and body might begin to rest and heal. Kathy’s heart attack had been caused by a tear in the wall of one of her coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart, a condition known as spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD). Experts are unsure what causes SCAD, but patients are often women like Kathy who are otherwise healthy.

According to the American Heart Association, heart attack due to SCAD can be fatal if not treated immediately. Paul was devastated to learn Kathy might be one of the patients who does not survive.

“She was so young, you don’t think something like this could happen,” Paul says. “After you digest it, there’s nothing you can do but start contacting the family.”

To everyone’s great relief, Kathy made it through the first few challenging nights. She says she knew she had more to accomplish in life and was not willing to give up. What’s more, Dr. Brian Jaski, a Sharp Community Medical Group cardiologist affiliated with Sharp Memorial Hospital, and his colleagues told Paul they were willing to try whatever it took to give this young mom her life back.

When Kathy was removed from the ventilator, became conscious and first talked with Dr. Jaski, he explained she had a massive heart attack and was experiencing congestive heart failure. Dr. Jaski warned Kathy her life would be drastically different from that point forward. She was also told she would need a heart transplant.

“I’m going to blow your socks off,” she says she told him. “I hope you do,” he replied.

A week later, Kathy returned home in a wheelchair. Kathy, Paul, Jacob and her daughters, Janessa and Melissa, were faced with a strange, new normal. Kathy was unable to do any of the things she was used to doing, from cooking and managing the household to working as a hair stylist and salon owner and enjoying time with her kids.

“I had one goal: to walk from the living room to our bedroom,” Kathy recalls. “My husband had to do everything, and we had a lot of help from our family members.”

Kathy also came to rely on her lifelong friend, Cindy Gonzales, who was with her from the day she had her heart attack and remains close today. “Cindy helped me so much and was there every step of the way,” Kathy says.

A lot different than jazzercize

Three months after her heart attack, Kathy was given the green light to attend Sharp’s Cardiac Rehab Program, where the heart and vascular rehabilitation team guides patients through the process of healing, recovery and rehabilitation. The program consists of medically supervised exercise sessions and lifestyle change workshops to reduce the risk of future heart issues.

Kathy was advised to attend the program at least three times each week. And though she was the only woman in those early days — and at least a decade younger than many of the other participants — she came to rely on them to get her through the toughest of times. “These guys became friends to me,” she says. “We’re all in the same boat and share a special bond.”

Kathy also became close with the program’s care providers. Mary Miller, an exercise physiologist, has worked with Kathy since her first day in the rebab program, and the two women now consider themselves close friends. She says caring for Kathy throughout the past 25 years has been rewarding and, at times, challenging.

“Kathy entered her first exercise session in a wheelchair after having suffered a devasting heart attack and complication-filled hospital stay,” Miller says. “From that first session, it became clear that she had amazing support from her husband and children. And with the rest of her large family at home all pulling for her, she made slow and steady progress.”

25 years and 3 grandchildren later

Miller credits Kathy’s consistent effort and dedication to her health for Kathy’s ability to return to most of her previous activities. She was also able to improve her heart health so dramatically that she no longer required a heart transplant. “Kathy is always open to learning how best to care for her heart and how to modify any risk factors for heart disease so that her path forward is healthier and sustainable,” Miller says.

Mike Rein, MS, a clinical exercise physiologist and supervisor of the program, says that Kathy serves as an excellent example of perseverance for other patients entering the program. Her dedication for more than two decades to the Cardiac Rehab Program and Fit for Life maintenance program is an inspiration to those who experienced similarly complex cardiac issues, he says.

Other program participants often look to Kathy as a mentor. “You should talk to Kathy,” is a common refrain within the program’s walls.

“Many patients make lifestyle changes immediately following their heart attack or heart procedure, but cannot maintain them long term,” Rein says. “Kathy is an example of someone thriving 25 years post heart attack because of her determination and commitment.”

And while Kathy’s life did change after her heart attack — she had to retire, cut back on activities, change her diet and still naps every day — she recognizes that she was given a second chance at life. “I know I defied the odds,” she says.

She says her grandchildren are her “reason to be here,” and has used her added time and good health to help care for them over the years. Vinton, now age 15, has autism spectrum disorder and Kathy was able to help oversee his many therapies. “It’s so joyful to see how successful he’s been,” she says.

Jackson, age 4, lives in Arizona. And McCoy, just 16 months, spends two days each week with Kathy. “He’s like an always on button — he really wears her out,” Paul jokes. “But she loves it.”

Kathy and Paul have also taken advantage of their “gift of time” by simply living their lives as well as they can, spending time with family and traveling. They’ve been to Europe and go to Hawaii every year. They say they recognize Kathy is here today because of what the care team at Sharp Memorial did 25 years ago — and continue to do in the Rehabilitation Program and during her regular visits with Dr. Jaski — and are forever grateful.

“Dr. Jaski literally saved my life,” Kathy says. And sure enough, she continues to blow his socks off.

Learn more about heart and vascular care at Sharp; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

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