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Athens Woman Makes Comeback in the Gym after Emergency Heart Surgery

Athens, Ga. (May 1, 2019) – Forty-year-old Sonia Janis has been active her entire life, finding exercise as a way to de-stress. When she was 37, however, she had to rethink her typical gym routine after being diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition. She’s since undergone open-heart surgery and counted down the days when she will be able to walk back into the gym and was recently able to return to an active exercise routine – thanks to the care Piedmont Athens Regional provided.

“My brother was diagnosed with an inherited form of heart disease, and his doctor at the time recommended that all of his siblings get their hearts tested as well to ensure we didn’t have the same condition,” Janis said.

She quickly made an appointment with a local cardiologist at Piedmont Heart Institute of Athens to see if she shared this condition with her brother. “It turned out that I didn’t have the same condition, but I had something similar,” Janis said. It was then that she was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm.

“The aorta is the largest blood vessel in the body, and although it’s tough, sometimes the walls of the aorta can weaken and bulge, causing an aortic aneurysm,” said Ben Holland, M.D., interventional cardiologist at Piedmont Heart Institute of Athens. “Our team found the aortic aneurysm in Sonia’s heart was dilated, which meant there was a potential chance of it dissecting or bursting, which can be very dangerous.”

Because Janis’s aneurysm was relatively small, the risk of surgery was higher than the risk of monitoring the aneurysm’s size. During this time, however, she had to make some lifestyle changes.

“I was advised to stop working out because of the sensitivity of my heart condition, but I couldn’t,” Janis said. “Up until then, I’d been working out regularly for so long, and there was no way I could just take that out of my life.”

Instead, she made major modifications to her workouts, adjusting to lighter weights and simpler movements at her local CrossFit gym. As a result, she found her workouts helped her become more aware of the heart’s changes as her condition progressed.

“I could feel certain movements getting more difficult overtime. There would be days where I’d feel so out of breath,” Janis said. But she didn’t let that stop her. Janis also continued with regular follow-ups with her cardiologist, watching as her aortic aneurysm become more dilated and got closer to five centimeters.

One night, however, the “worst case scenario” occurred, according to Janis.

“I had a horrible headache, my jaw was locking up and my heart was beating so fast,” Janis said. Worried her aneurysm had become too dilated too quickly, she went to Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center’s emergency room.

Emergency room staff brought her to an exam room immediately, where she was seen by Steven Scott, M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon at Piedmont Heart Institute of Athens.

“We quickly found that the wall of her aneurysm was torn, which is known as an aortic dissection,” Dr. Scott said. “This condition is relatively uncommon, and it is often fatal because of internal bleeding and other potential complications. The dissection also involved her aortic valve, which needed to be replaced immediately.”

During Janis’s six-hour open-heart surgery, Dr. Scott replaced her aortic valve with a new, mechanical valve in her heart and replaced the damaged portion of Janis’s aorta. The surgery was a success.

Since her surgery, Janis has had one goal in mind: Getting back in the gym. The recovery has been a lengthy one, working to regain her strength as her heart heals.

She’s been attending cardiac rehabilitation classes at Piedmont’s Oconee Health Campus and recently stepped back into her beloved local CrossFit gym. Although she’s not back in full force, she looks forward to years to come when she can return to her regular workouts.

“It’s exciting to be back in the gym, getting back to my routine,” Janis said. “Finding trust in the care that your doctors provide is so important, and I’m thankful to have found that.”

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