Share Your Story: Susan O'Brien

Meet Susan O'Brien!


Susan O’Brien was living happily with her new husband Mark and their two puppies in their dream home, enjoying good times as summer approached.  “Life was wonderful,” recalled Susan, a petite woman in her 50s who exercised regularly and was in seemingly good health. “I felt great.”

Then something startling happened while she sat at her desk at work in May 2013. Susan felt faint. The dizzy spell lasted only a couple of seconds, and she didn’t pass out.  “I was nearly fainting, doing nothing by sitting,” she said.  Two days later, the feeling came again, this time while she walked in the park. Susan knew she needed to get checked by a doctor right away.  “I know my body,” she said. “I went to my physician.” 

Even though her blood pressure and cholesterol were normal and there were no outward signs of a problem, Susan and the doctor decided she would wear a portable heart monitor to find out what might be going on.  “He was being really thorough,” she said.  Susan wore the monitor for 24 hours, feeling fine the whole time. “We went out that night, we went shopping.”  It took eight days for the results to come back. Those results altered her life.  “I am looking at your heart monitor results, and they’re not good,” the doctor told her. “You need to get to the hospital immediately.”  Susan had a condition known as ventricular tachycardia. Her heart was enlarged and beating dangerously fast. When she was having dizzy spells, her heart was beating abnormally and could have stopped.

The next day, she received an internal defibrillator, a battery-powered device surgically implanted under the skin to keep track of her heart rate; when it detects a problem, it sends an electrical impulse to restore a normal heartbeat.  Susan and her relatives were stunned by the diagnosis. No one in her family was known to have heart disease.  Doctors said a virus at some point in her life may have led to the condition. But they didn’t know for sure.

Susan took three months of medical leave from her job at the Webster Groves School District in the St. Louis area. She has resumed normal activities and sometimes finds it hard to fathom that she has a heart problem.  “I think, ‘I can’t believe I went through that,’” she said. “It’s life changing.”

What hasn’t changed is her zest for living. She’s just learned to do it with a small square defibrillator inside her that she jokingly nicknamed “Imo” after a famous pizza joint in St. Louis that cuts its pizzas into squares and boasts of “the square beyond compare.”

Susan, now 55, remains active and a healthy 115 pounds at 5-foot-2. Her message for others is this:  “You don’t have to be overweight and out of shape to have a heart problem. … Listen to your body, and get more than one opinion.” 

Susan is back to enjoying happy times with her husband Mark, a police officer whom she’d known for many years and married in August 2012. She’s thankful every day for the doctor who decided to put her on a heart monitor to evaluate her condition.  Along with working at her full time job, Susan is volunteering with the American Heart Association. She is in the process of putting together “Susan’s Team Imo” for the St. Louis Heart Walk in spring 2015. She wants to help other women by warning them that signs of heart trouble can be different in women and men and that heart disease is the leading cause of death in women.  “I am excited and happy to help bring my story to the public,” she said, “to bring some awareness to this silent killer.”


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