A diagnosis for Debbie Parrish, 58, didn’t come easy. The sudden pounding in her chest wasn’t in her imagination. It took two doctors and several tests before she would have any answers.

“I wore a heart monitor for 24 hours and nothing showed up, and I just thank God for Dr. Basco of Sutherland Cardiology because he wouldn’t stop there.”

Debbie was terrified to learn she had an aneurysm caused by a calcium buildup that narrowed her aortic valve, restricting blood flow to her heart. 

“You hear the word aneurysm and you think, ‘I’m getting ready to die.’”

Debbie lived in the moderate range of risk associated with her condition for 15 years throughout which her doctor said she had just two limitations. She couldn’t let her heart rate get over 160 and she couldn’t press or lift more than 50 pounds. Despite her diagnosis, Debbie continued exercising and lived her life within these restrictions. 

In October 2020, tests showed the calcification of Debbie’s aortic valve had increased and now placed her in the severe risk range. It was time for her to meet with a heart surgeon.

“That kind of freaked me out a little bit because, in my head, they’re getting ready to break my sternum and go into my heart,” she says. “And we’re looking at months and months and months of recovery.”

But because of the way Debbie had decided to live her life, she had options. According to her cardiologist, healthy eating and pursuing fitness meant she was in good condition and her heart muscle was strong.

Instead of open heart surgery, Debbie and her surgeon decided she would undergo a less invasive procedure called TAVR (Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement). During the procedure, which only takes about an hour, a transcatheter heart valve is placed within the narrowed, calcified valve and expanded by way of a sheath that is inserted into the femoral artery in the leg. 

Debbie went in for her procedure on Jan. 14 and was resting at home the very next day. For two weeks she had to be careful not to lift anything over five pounds.

Now, as a mother of four and grandmother of four with another due in March, all bets are off.

“I think about my grandchildren, and prior to this, I could have never picked them up over 50 pounds and now I can,” she says. “I want to be able to pick up my grandkids and swing them around and play and do all of those things. It’s exciting to me now.”

The former second-grade school teacher spends her retirement working as the studio manager at F45 Wolfchase, a gym owned by her best friend, Vanessa. Fitness is part of her daily routine, but Debbie says she made her health a priority long before it became part of her job.

“My decision to have a stronger heart happened years ago,” she says. “When my cardiologist said, ‘Debbie, you have beautiful arteries,’ that’s not because I decided to do that last week or last month. I’ve been working at this a long time. Being fit is not an emotional thing. Being fit is a decision every single day.”

As she gets older, Debbie cherishes her ability to easily do everyday things like work in her yard, play with her grandkids on the floor, and run with them at the park. 

“For me at 58, I work hard in class at the gym so I don’t have to work hard in life,” she explains. “It’s a choice that I made. I’m also driven because of what I want my life to look like. I want to keep living.”

Without the procedure, Debbie’s doctors said she might only live for another two years. Now, instead of a time limit, her healthy choices and focus on fitness are the reasons she will be able to live a life with no limitations.  

“I want to live life as passionately as I can. I thought I did before, but after this experience, I feel like I’ve been given this chance to make a difference and that God has let me live another day to make a difference for somebody and that’s what I want to do.”

By Kelsey J. Lawrence
Photo by Tindall Stephens