Heart surgery

After weeks of flu-like symptoms, open heart surgery at age 26


On the cool first day of fall, Melanie Falcon went for a run in Allentown, PA.

She went home more tired than usual. In the days that followed, Falcon – a TV presenter and journalist who was then 26 – endured fever, chills, headaches and fatigue.

She thought it was a bad cold or the flu. When the symptoms persisted for several days, she went to see a doctor. They determined it wasn’t a cold or the flu and tested her for Lyme disease, which came back negative. After several weeks of symptoms, she went to an infectious disease specialist. Further testing did not provide answers.

Meanwhile, Falcon continued to feel miserable. It was 2012, and while she was working around the clock reporting on Hurricane Sandy, “I set alarms on my phone to switch between Advil and Tylenol because my fever and chills were so bad, ”she said.

At the end of November, Falcon became so weak and tired that she was admitted to the hospital. Again, the only thing they found was the possibility of a virus, and she was sent home. A few days later, she felt worse and returned to the hospital.

This time, an echocardiogram revealed that Falcon had a common congenital heart defect called a bicuspid aortic valve. Instead of having three leaflets, two of hers were fused together, preventing the valve from closing normally. In addition, his valve had become infected, damaging him and the tissues around him.

Falcon received an “open heart surgery manual” and tried to prepare for a scheduled surgery less than 12 hours later.

“At that time, I wasn’t even scared,” she said. “I was so sick and felt bad that I knew I wasn’t going to live if I hadn’t had this operation.”

Falcon also had to decide what type of replacement valve she wanted: mechanical or bovine.

She opted for a bovine valve because it would allow her to have children later, although it would eventually mean needing another valve replacement.

The next morning, doctors removed the infected tissue from her heart, patched the area around the root of her aorta, and replaced the diseased valve.

After cardiac rehabilitation, Falcon returned to racing and felt well. She shared her story on her local newscast to raise awareness as she navigated the new world of birth defects.

She also married Brian O’Reilly. And three years after her operation, she had their first son.

Three years later, she became pregnant with another son. At that time, she also had signs of wear and tear on her heart valve. She was closely monitored and gave birth safely to their son, Charlie, in November 2018.

Soon after, it was time to think about the next operation. This time, she and O’Reilly had time to prepare. When they saw doctors and underwent preliminary tests, they remembered something discovered during her first surgery: She had another congenital heart defect.

Simply put, Falcon’s coronary artery didn’t go where it was supposed to. This is called the abnormal coronary artery. It hadn’t caused any problems, but it did increase his risk for future heart events.

O’Reilly said his wife remained focused on “going about business and that feeling of ‘I have to be good for my sons.’ I was the one who was panicking all the time,” he said.

Falcon underwent her second open heart surgery in November 2019. This time she had two surgeons – one for valve replacement and another specializing in congenital heart defects to repair the abnormal coronary artery.

Falcon was back in racing 10 weeks after the surgery, a recovery his doctors attributed to his level of fitness before the surgery.

Bicuspid aortic valves are often genetic. Since Falcon’s diagnosis, screening has detected the disease in her father and 3-year-old son, Charlie; for now, they only need monitoring. Falcon will eventually need a third valve replacement, although she hopes it can be done through a less invasive procedure.

Today, Falcon is sharing his story at American Heart Association events to raise awareness about birth defects. She passes on the knowledge she would have liked to have had when trying to understand her flu-like symptoms.

“I really didn’t know anything about congenital heart disease,” she said. “I knew about heart attacks, but that was about it.”

Falcon said his experience shows how important it is to stand up for yourself if something goes wrong, including returning to hospital after being discharged home.

“My first surgeon said I probably had hours to live if I hadn’t had this operation when I did,” she said. “It’s scary to look back and think about it. Listen to your body and don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor. Have a good knowledge base of how your body usually feels and fight back if something is wrong.”

Even before Falcon had his first operation, O’Reilly was no stranger to it. When he was in college, his father had two bypass surgeries. But the experience opened his eyes to a whole different community of heart patients born with their disease.

“Understanding that heart disease can be out of control made me realize how important advocacy is and go to the doctor and understand your body and how it works,” he said. “Heart disease isn’t just the old man squeezing his chest. It can be anyone and everything.”

Stories from the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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