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Straight from the heart

By Mark Johnston
Photography by Johnny Quirin

Sharon Buursma knows what so many of us have pondered at some point: What goes through your mind when you die?

On Jan. 15, 2005, Buursma lay in a bed in Spectrum Health’s heart center in full cardiac arrest. Her heart gave out for nearly 45 seconds, “flat lining” on an electrocardiograph, seemingly succumbing after a brutal nine-month stretch that began with a heart attack the previous April and included 10 hours of quadruple bypass surgery that left her unconscious for three days the following December.

In recovery from the surgery, her heart raced at a dangerously high 180 beats per minute. So five weeks after the operation, she returned to the heart center for voluntary defibrillation in an attempt to restore a regular and safer heart beat.

Instead, her heart stopped. And as her medical team worked to revive her, the ominous flat line on the monitor hummed uninterrupted by nary a blip for 10 … 20 … 30 seconds. Her eyelids remained closed.
But she still had vision.

“ I know at that point that I’m in my bed. I know I’m being resuscitated,” she said. “I can feel the doctor take my hand, and I see his aura — my eyes are closed, but I can see him standing there in his white jacket.”

“ The doctor” is Richard McNamara, a specialist with West Michigan Heart and chief of cardiology at Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, whose impeccable credentials include board certification in internal medicine, critical care, cardiovascular disease and interventional cardiology.

“ Sharon’s blood pressure was down to about 50 or 60,” McNamara said. “We were doing everything we could do, but it wasn’t clear she was going to survive.”

McNamara has another “credential” that doesn’t appear on his résumé. As Buursma is quick to point out, he is a very handsome man.

“ So I’m lying there,” she recalls, “and I say to myself, ‘Rick McNamara is holding my hand. Is this ‘to die for’ or what?’”

Then Buursma, releasing soulful laughter that makes you feel better just being around her, chides herself. “Sharon, I think you could have used a better choice of words.”

That anecdote is saturated with meaning, for it not only reveals the heart of this woman, but also the humor, the spirit and the will that defines who she is and anchors the mission she now undertakes.

There are numerous entry points into Buursma’s ledger of professional accomplishments, including her designation by Grand Rapids Business Journal as one of West Michigan’s 50 Most Influential Women; a career in health care that took her from registered nurse to executive vice president of Spectrum Health; her tenure as president and CEO of Visiting Nurse Association; her service on many college-level advisory and community service boards. The list of distinctions goes on and on.

Yet, her greatest platform for achieving her modest but most precious goal to “leave the world a little better” than she found it is a comparatively low-profile volunteer position she has assumed for the past two years: corporate co-chairperson of the local “Go Red For Women” campaign, coordinated with the American Heart Association each February to heighten heart disease awareness.

Buursma is committed to helping women improve their heart health, using her own story and a message that is direct, informed and true: Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women and men. And if you don’t educate your mind and tend to your body, you are at greater risk of developing it.

‘ This could happen to you’
Sitting together on one of many full bookshelves in Buursma’s comfortable and orderly Grand Rapids home are the Holy Bible and “The Putting Bible,” tomes of her faith and her passion for golf.

But Buursma herself is the open book here. As she curls into a corner of a sleek leather couch, her hands clasped around a mug of decaffeinated coffee when they aren’t gently shooing away her two tabby cats, Babe and Bambino, Buursma, 62, explains why she can so openly discuss her heart history.

“ People say I’m inspirational and that’s fine, but why wouldn’t I share this story?” she said. “It’s really impossible for people to be unhappy if they are grateful. With everything that has happened to me, I feel so grateful. And if other women can learn from me …”

The lesson begins in 2003 when Buursma, who divorced 14 years earlier, was immersed in her impressive, fast-paced and consuming career. Supplementing her loaded work schedule with travel — she revels in her and her friends’ match play on the famed St. Andrews golf course in Scotland that year — Buursma put little thought into how her hectic lifestyle was not a good match for her inherited health constitution.

She knew her family had a history of heart disease and non-insulin-dependent diabetes (she has subsequently been diagnosed as a Type II diabetic); she knew that at 165 pounds, she was about 40 pounds overweight; she knew she had been battling high blood pressure since her late 20s; and she knew her lifestyle (and a penchant for chocolate) did not lead to a healthy diet.

But it wasn’t until April 2004 that the risks became reality. In the midst of a typically busy work day at a new job, Buursma felt discomfort in her chest near the bottom of her esophagus. She initially attributed it to simple indigestion.

“ It felt like I had swallowed an entire can of pop that got stuck there, and I just couldn’t burp,” she said.

“On a 10-point pain scale, it probably registered at about a 0.5 — hardly anything.”
Later that evening, she experienced severe pain in the back of her neck that a heating pad and fitful attempts at sleep could not alleviate. By the next morning, the neck pain had subsided but the indigestion had returned. By that night the pain had intensified to the point where she finally conceded something was not right.

“ My vital signs were stable, so I grabbed five pair of underwear and some makeup and drove myself to (Spectrum’s) Butterworth campus,” she said (adding her advice to others not to drive themselves in similar situations).

Shortly after admittance, an electrocardiogram revealed she was having a heart attack.

“ I knew I was in the best place. I was in my environment and I wasn’t panicked about it at all,” she said.
However, the exam revealed extensive heart disease that not only included several blocked arteries but what appeared to be a site of “old” damage, which crystallized a startling memory for Buursma. She recalled that 20 years earlier, at age 40, she had a similar “indigestion” episode that passed without much thought.

She had experienced a “silent” heart attack without even knowing it.

There was no severe, chest-clutching pain or similar symptoms typically associated with men who have heart attacks, only subtle signs that women often fail to recognize — signs that Buursma ironically had read about in a local newspaper article just a few weeks before her 2004 heart attack.

“ Symptoms can be anywhere — in the front, in the back, in the neck,” she said. “Women’s symptoms of heart attack are much more subtle, and consequently, women are more likely to die outside of the hospital setting from unknown causes.

“ Up until a short time ago, people didn’t realize women have heart attacks as often as men. As a coronary care nurse many years ago, I almost never saw women in a coronary care unit.”

The nine months following the April ’04 attack were consumed by heart repair and setbacks. Doctors initially inserted nine stents, or tiny tubes, to open her blocked heart arteries. But by October, she again sensed something was amiss.

“ I was on the treadmill, and I noticed just the slightest tightness in my chest,” she said. “At this point, the message is all about getting to know your body. This was just something I hadn’t felt before.”

A subsequent exam revealed the stents had failed. “All nine!” she said with more marvel than dismay in her voice. “But there’s always somebody out there who has 10,” she added, comically snapping her fingers in mock frustration that she may not have set a stent failure record.

Open heart surgery was now required: a quadruple bypass procedure during which she spent 10 hours on a heart and lung machine. The day before the surgery, she composed an e-mail that she sent to friends and loved ones.

“ I explained my health situation,” she said. “And I said, ‘I don’t think my life’s work is done. I don’t want you to be afraid; I’m in good hands. But I want you to do one thing for me: Pray for me. And if you’re a woman, I want you to know this could happen to you.’”

‘ I need to be grateful’
Complications plagued her recovery, culminating in the near-death experience five weeks after the operation, as recalled by McNamara.

“ I have been at West Michigan Heart for 18 years and in that time, her condition was among the worst of patients who have survived (similar circumstances),” he said. “I have seen but a handful that have been on death’s door that have recovered to the extent she has. I use the word ‘miracle’ very sparingly in this business, but I think it applies in this case.”

In more than one way, perhaps. During the three days Buursma lay unconscious in recovery from the quadruple bypass, she experienced a spiritual paradigm shift.

“ I saw this magnetic field in the shape of angel wings around my bed, kind of like an electric field with bands in it,” she recalled. “And three messages came to me. One, I need to be grateful for every single day, for the good things and the bad things. Two, I wondered how I was going to get a close friend of mine to stop smoking. And three, I knew I was nice and respectful, but I didn’t pay enough attention to people.”

That has changed.

“ I’m now just this incredible people person,” she said. “I’m a much warmer person, a much better listener. It just changed my life.”

It changed her lifestyle, too. She diligently takes her heart medications, works at home in order to have stricter control over her diet — which no longer includes salt or sugar — and engages in at least six hours of aerobic exercise per week. She has lost 40 pounds, prompting her to stretch her arms wide, playfully shift her hips to one side and gleefully exclaim, “Now, I have the body I’ve always dreamed of!”

And those gadgets hooked onto the belt loops of her jeans? They aren’t heart or blood pressure monitors. They’re a pocket-sized Dell personal computer and a Blackberry communicator, indispensable tools during her busy working days as a management consultant with Varnum Consulting.

She has also established very clear, very ordered personal priorities: finding peace through God; maintaining a healthy life/work/diet balance; giving back to others; supporting, encouraging and loving her two stepchildren and four grandchildren; honing her golf game; and reaching others through “Go Red For Women.”

“ I know it sounds hokey, but I swear to God, I would re-live this year over again because of everything I’ve learned,” she said.

And everything she has taught.

‘ Inspirational is the right word’
Kathleen Vogelsang, investments director for Van Andel Institute, read about Buursma in a newspaper article published last year to highlight “Go Red For Women” efforts. She was moved, if not initially motivated, by Buursma’s story.

“ I thought, ‘This is too bad for her, but I’m healthy, none of this applies to me,’” said Vogelsang, also a corporate co-chair with the “Go Red” campaign. “A week later, I started feeling fatigue, chest pain, some pain in my arm.

“ There was something about that article that stuck in my mind. I went to the doctor and learned on Valentine’s Day (2005) that my blood pressure was so high, it was in stroke territory.

“ That was a real wakeup call to me. I’m only 45, an age where we’re still young and healthy, and we think we have the rest of our lives. But we’re silently doing damage to our hearts and not doing anything to check it.

“ Sharon has dedicated the rest of her life to getting that word out. ‘Inspirational’ is the right word to describe her.” McNamara agrees.

“ Sharon is very interested in living,” he said. “She is a believer. She has experienced something not a lot of people do and has insight not a lot of people have. Things don’t become real until they become personal. Sharon becomes both without becoming maudlin. She is intrinsically very honest. And she is a teacher, a leader and a communicator.”

For all of her good humor, her indomitable optimism and openness, Buursma approaches those roles carefully, never discounting the gravity of heart disease.

“ I don’t want to scare women to death — sometimes women just have indigestion,” she said. “But if you have family heart history and this history is strong, go visit a cardiologist. Become more aware of your body. That’s what this is all about. That’s the message.

“ I have the ability to save lives now more than I ever did as a staff nurse or a top executive. Most of the time you don’t know the trail you’re leaving. But in this case, I know I can leave a big mark. I’m so blessed to be able to do that.” GR

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