Woman's recovery turns out to be more rare than disease

Naesha Parks believes it was divine inspiration that led her to take her sudden bad feeling more seriously and urge a friend to call 911.

She suddenly remembered a friend she hadn't spoken to in years describing his first heart attack.

"The last thing that I remember was saying to her, 'I can't die. Who's going to care for my children?'" said Mrs. Parks, 35. "And I woke up a week-and-a-half later in Open Heart Recovery."

That she was able to wake up at all stumps even her heart surgeon.

What felled Mrs. Parks was an extremely rare and deadly condition called spontaneous coronary artery dissection. There have been only about 300 documented cases, although there have probably been more that were not written up, said Mazullah Kamran, assistant professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and co-author of a review article on the disease last month in The Journal of Interventional Cardiology .

"It's probably an underestimate because most of the people just don't make it out of the hospital or don't get a definitive test," he said.

For reasons that are still unclear, the coronary arteries split open and about 20 percent of patients die, although improved imaging and advanced treatment have raised survival rates, Dr. Kamran said.

It most often strikes in younger women before or after they give birth, as it did with Mrs. Parks, and may be triggered by hormone levels, but there is no definitive cause and only hypotheses at this point, he said.

She had just had a son, Reese, nine days before, in June, and a friend was taking her out to get a soda because she was tired of being cooped up in the house.

"All of a sudden, I started to feel really bad, an indescribable feeling," she said. "I can't say my heart was hurting a whole lot. I just felt bad."

She remembered her friend's description of the heart attack and knew what she was feeling could be a sign of something more serious, so she got her friend to call an ambulance.

It was a pulmonary embolism, a clot caught in her lungs, that knocked her down at first. But after a couple of days of treatment at University Hospital, she began to show signs of heart trouble. A cardiac catheterization came up with some shocking results. One of the three main arteries feeding blood to her heart was "extremely small," and the other two had completely split, said her cardiothoracic surgeon, M. Vinayak Kamath.

"Basically, there was no amount (of blood) going through" to the heart muscle, he said. As they were trying to get her into surgery, her heart stopped and it took 20-25 minutes to revive her and get her on a heart-lung bypass machine. Dr. Kamath did three coronary artery bypass grafts, but he was not optimistic.

Outside the operating room, Mrs. Parks' family was told she had only a small chance of pulling through. In reality, Dr. Kamath said he was just trying to soften the blow for them.

"She was dead, basically," he said. "This was as close to dead as I have seen before."

But slowly, hour by hour, Mrs. Parks seemed to improve. Dr. Kamath left her chest cavity open and started calling around to see if he could get her a heart transplant. Medical College of Georgia Hospital couldn't help him, and the University of Alabama-Birmingham couldn't take her in her condition. The next day, out of the blue, two top heart programs -- the Cleveland Clinic and Massachusetts General Hospital -- called offering a plane to bring her in, having heard about her story, Dr. Kamath said.

Still, he hesitated to move her. And his faith was rewarded in improvements "almost on an hourly basis," he said. After spending two nights by her bedside, afraid she might suddenly take a turn for the worse, Dr. Kamath finally closed her chest. And she began the long road to recovery.

"There's no way scientifically to explain her recovery," said Dr. Kamath. "In her case, it was just nothing short of a miracle. I feel sort of humbled."

It is not a mystery to Mrs. Parks. Family, friends, strangers in churches as far away as Germany added her to their prayers. And it is faith that made the difference, she believes.

"If I were not a believer in miracles myself, there would have been a strong possibility that I might not have received one," she said. "I think that when man says no, it's the perfect opportunity for God to say yes. And that is exactly what happened."

She ended up spending a month in the hospital and got home care after that.

"I had to learn how to walk again, for one thing. I had to learn how to use my hands, (regain) balance," Mrs. Parks said.

It hurt her that she couldn't be the mother she wanted to be right away, but her 9-year-old daughter, Sydney, helped out with her new baby brother.

"She's little mama," Mrs. Parks said, laughing. "She helps out quite a bit. She knows that I'm not 100 percent yet."

And even though she still is going through cardiac rehabilitation at University, last month she was able to go back to her position as assistant principal at Evans Elementary School. A big pink sign outside the school office declares, "Welcome back Mrs. Parks! We love you."

At first, she admits, there was a tendency to wonder why she was struck by such a rare and nearly devastating illness. Now, it is a testament to faith.

"When I reflect about what I go through and what I continue to go through, I often do so just knowing that God is just awesome," Mrs. Parks said. "When you have doctors saying to you, 'I don't understand why you're here, why you're living,' there's someone much bigger than you or I looking out for you."

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.

NAESHA PARKS

Age: 35

OCCUPATION: Assistant principal at Evans Elementary School

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in education, Augusta State University; specialist in educational leadership, Cambridge College; master's degree in education, Troy State University; pursuing doctorate at Georgia Southern University

FAMILY: Husband Keenan Johnson; son Reese; daughter Sydney; stepsons Chandler and Chance