Mending a broken heart

Written by David Green.


It was Dec. 31, 1999. The world was on the brink of a new millennium, and, like most people, Wauseon residents Deb and Richard Gleckler were celebrating.

They had just returned home from dinner and were preparing to attend a gathering at Richard’s brother’s house when Deb, who grew up east of Morenci, complained that her acid reflux disease was especially bad.

“I’ve always had acid reflux, sometimes with pain I’d call ‘searing,’” she said, “but this was way more intense than usual, to the point where I thought I needed to go to the hospital.”

She collapsed during the car ride to the emergency room.

She awoke a helicopter ride and six days later in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Toledo.

At the age of 44, Deb, who had previously considered herself in good health, suffered a massive heart attack—one so severe that doctors immediately placed her atop the list of people in need of a heart transplant.

“My kids kept telling me when I finally came to that I was not Y2K compliant,” she said.heart-lady

The heart Deb was born with continues to tick. As the weeks passed, her condition improved and she fell further and further down the list. Currently, she is not on the list at all, but it won’t stay that way forever. Her heart continues to weaken.

Deb suffers from congestive heart failure, which occurs when the heart can’t pump blood out as quickly as it pumps it in. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart failure is a chronic condition that gradually becomes worse, and that by the time it’s diagnosed, the patient’s heart has probably been losing pumping capacity for his or her entire life.

The disease is caused and exacerbated by a variety of factors, such as birth defects, genetic risks, high blood pressure or cholesterol, poor nutrition, and smoking.

Deb smoked at the time of her heart attack, but thinks genetics were the ultimate cause—her father, Arlington Frantz, suffered a heart attack at the relatively young age of 50, but didn’t survive.

Nevertheless, she hasn’t smoked a cigarette since her attack—quitting smoking was just one of the many lifestyle changes she has made since learning of her condition.

REHABILITATION—Rehabilitation began days after she was moved from the intensive care unit, as nurses pulled her to her feet with instructions to climb stairwells and walk up and down hallways.

After her discharge from the hospital, she was assigned to a rehabilitation program at the Fulton County Medical Center. As a mother who had raised four girls and ran her own flower shop, Deb wasn’t used to feeling so feeble. At first, she lasted only two or three minutes on the exercise bike and treadmill.

It was hard to keep from falling into depression, which is something many heart attack survivors experience, she said.

One casualty of the heart attack was Deb’s flower shop, “The Flower Lady,” which the Glecklers closed during the rehabilitation process. As she got better, they made an attempt to reopen but it didn’t work out.

“It became very apparent very quickly that I wasn’t going to be able to do it, for reasons of stress and other things,” she said.

“I lost the whole person I was before,” she said. “I can’t run around and do everything I want to do.”

Doctors have instructed her to stay in during periods of extreme weather, like the cold spell earlier this month. Performing normal yardwork like shoveling snow and lugging mulch is also out of the question.

“It’s almost like a grief at losing someone,” she continued.

“To this day, I can’t walk on the treadmill at an inclined angle.”

DIET—As a country girl raised on beef and mashed potatoes, the switch to more healthful eating habits was also difficult.

She attended classes about maintaining low cholesterol, low blood pressure, and a proper diet, and began eating more fish, chicken and fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Canned and  processed foods contain a lot of preservatives, especially salt,” she said.

The Glecklers don’t put salt on any foods anymore—not even mashed potatoes. Cheese and sour cream are absent from baked potatoes.

The family’s barbecue grill has also seen a lot more action since the attack.

“It’s much more healthy to grill foods than to pan fry them. I don’t eat anything fried at all,” Deb said.

Occasionally, she’ll indulge in a few chips, but will only eat, at most, half the serving size suggested on the back of the package.

EXERCISE—She complements her diet with daily exercise—a mile walk on the treadmill, plus twice-weekly visits to the Fulton County Health Center’s heart rehabilitation center, where she does strength and cardiovascular exercises with a group of men who also suffer from heart health issues.

But where are all the women?

According to an AHA fact sheet, women are more likely to die from their first heart attack than men are. The AHA attributes this to a variety of factors—heart disease is often misdiagnosed in women; women usually suffer attacks later in life, so they’re more likely to have conditions that could mask the attack, such as osteoporosis and arthritis; women are more likely to complain of atypical pains when suffering attacks rather than “classic” chest pains.

EDUCATE—As soon as she was healthy enough to do so, Deb began participating in events aimed to raise consciousness about the risks of heart disease in women, and of the disease’s general risks. It is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States, according to the AHA.

The first event she attended, a 2001 5K walk in Toledo, was a milestone for her rehabilitation.

“Not many rehab people participate because they aren’t able to,” she said. “I was glad I could get out there and do the walk.”

At first, she walked alone. Then one of her daughters joined her. Then another. Now a good portion of her extended family—four children and their spouses, along with six grandchildren—participate in walks for heart health all over Ohio. Deb has also spoken to members of her church about her condition.

“We’ll go out and do anything to promote heart health,” she said. “Education is the biggest thing.”

THE FUTURE—Patients who suffer congestive heart failure are typically given  five years to live after the attack episode, Deb said.

Now, in year seven of her rehabilitation, she remains aware, enthusiastic and mobile, well enough to work a part-time job at “Anything Grows” and babysit her six grandchildren.

“Every single day I’m alive and with my family and my church community is a gift from God,” she said. “After all, he is the one in control of when it’s time for me to go.”

She doesn’t plan on ever reaching the level of fitness she enjoyed before the heart attack—her heart only beats with about half the efficiency of a healthy one, and will continue to get worse.

However, she said, it’s important not to live by such numbers and to continue to focus on staying healthy.

“Eventually, my heart will get to a point where I have to go back on the [transplant] list and we will cross that bridge when we come to it,” she said, “but there is nothing I can do about it now except for what I am doing.”

• The AHA is conducting its Go Red for Women campaign this month, stressing the importance of heart disease awareness among women. Two Sundays ago, women were encouraged to wear red to their church services as a show of support.

    -February 21, 2007 
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