13:29 PM

Nurse receives life-saving heart surgery, cardiac rehab at SCL Health hospitals

Olga Firstbrook with her grandchildren welcoming her home from the hospital.

Olga Firstbrook, a 64-year-old nurse, has worked in all areas of healthcare, including pediatrics, cardiac care, ICU, oncology and various management positions. She’s spent decades taking care of patients, which came naturally to her. However, when she had to learn how to become a patient, that wasn’t as easy.

A few years ago, Olga began experiencing atrial fibrillation (AFib)-related issues that included a rapid heart rate. AFib is the most common type of treated heart arrhythmia that happens when the heart beats too slowly, too fast or in an irregular way. It can lead to blood clots in the heart and increases the risk of stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications.

Olga’s heart was beating at 120-140 beats per minute. For most healthy adult men and women, resting heart rates range from 60 to 100 beats per minute. Her doctor ran tests and she was prescribed a couple of medications. She continued to deal with her health in a proactive way, going back every 3-6 months to check on her heart. Her doctor conducted diagnostic testing, monitored her heart health with an echocardiogram, MRI, and EKG, and performed cardiac catheterization.

After moving to Colorado in September 2020, Olga began experiencing more frequent incidents of rapid heart rate, and overall was not feeling great. She went to a cardiologist in Boulder, who recommended she find a cardiothoracic surgeon. After doing extensive research online, she decided to seek care at Saint Joseph Hospital. 

In July 2021, Olga was told she needed to have a valve repaired. The surgery, which was actually three procedures in one, included a tricuspid valve repair, a right/left Cox-maze procedure to treat her AFib, and an AtriClip to block the left atrial appendage to help reduce the risk of blood clots. She was in the hospital for five days. 

“The doctors completely put my mind at ease,” said Olga. “They provided an in-depth explanation of my surgery and walked me through exactly what would happen from the moment I walked in the door to the day I was discharged. Being a nurse, I’m very particular and have extremely high expectations. I knew what to expect, but throughout the entire experience I had to learn how to act like a patient, and not like a nurse.”

Olga’s surgery at Saint Joseph was a success. For her cardiac rehab, she went to Lutheran Medical Center. Her daughter delivered her baby at Lutheran in 2020 and received excellent care, so Olga was already confident in the staff and the care.  

“It feels like a real family environment,” said Olga. “After receiving care at Saint Joe’s and Lutheran, you can tell they have a passion-driven mission. The staff truly cares and it’s a great place to be. The doctors, nurses, office staff, cleaning crews and food service workers were outstanding. They all showed such compassion to me – and to each other. Working in the healthcare field during COVID-19 and still experiencing that demeanor is incredible.” 

Olga was off work for three months in order to give her body time to heal. She began cardiac rehab about seven weeks after her surgery. Cardiac rehab is a medically supervised program designed to improve your cardiovascular health for people who have experienced a heart attack, heart failure or heart surgery. It consists of exercise counseling and training, education for heart-healthy living and counseling to reduce stress.

The rehab sessions, held three times a week, included exercising, strength building, nutrition classes, endurance and tolerance training, breathing training and various educational pieces. While participating in cardiac exercises, the therapists would check her oxygen levels, blood pressure and heart rate. 

“The classes were designed to educate and then re-educate us,” Olga said. “There was a real comradery with the other patients. The rehab facility essentially became my gym and it was like a pep rally with everyone encouraging each other.”

The doctors told Olga it would take 6-12 months for her to completely feel like her old self again, but she is recovering nicely. She stressed the importance of listening to your body and not ignoring your symptoms.

“If something doesn’t feel right, go to your doctor,” said Olga. “You have to investigate and you also have to be a willing participant in your health. There are many lifestyle changes you can do to help keep your heart healthy, like good nutrition and exercise. You only get one time on Earth and you have to take advantage of it. If you don’t, the consequence could be you might not be here.”