Just one day after graduating from Nashville’s Lipscomb Academy, Haley Grizzell ventured to TriStar Centennial Heart & Vascular Center to schedule surgery to fix a hole in her heart. Three days later, she underwent what’s called a minimally invasive surgical atrial septal defect (ASD) repair.

“It gave her her life back,” says Haley’s mom Lori Grizzell, who works at TriStar Centennial Medical Center as an RN Case Manager.

Haley and her family discovered the ASD, an opening between the right atrium and left atrium of the heart, after a near-fainting spell landed her in her pediatrician’s office and then at Vanderbilt for an echocardiogram. Lori ultimately asked Centennial Heart cardiologist Dr. John Riddick if he’d look at Haley’s case.

“A group of doctors met and discussed Haley before we even met with them,” Lori says. “I found that very comforting, and I’m glad we didn’t jump into a decision about surgery early on.”

While the majority of patients Haley’s age are candidates for a simple catheter-based closure that plugs the hole, Haley’s defect was too large and too close to the aortic valve to utilize this method. This meant she’d need to undergo an operation in which the surgeon divides the breastbone, leaving a long scar down the middle of the chest and resulting in a lengthy recovery period. Neither side effect was ideal for an 18-year-old girl who’d already made the cheerleading squad at her college of choice, Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. Fortunately, however, Dr. Riddick referred Haley to TriStar Cardiovascular Surgery to see Dr. Sreekumar Subramanian, who was recruited to TriStar Centennial Heart & Vascular Center in 2015 for his minimally invasive surgery techniques.

“You go in on the side between the ribs, so you don’t divide any bones,” Dr. Subramanian says. “Patients don’t have the long scar, and the recovery is a lot faster.”

In addition to interviewing Dr. Subramanian for all the official medical details, we stole a moment with Haley and her mom while Haley was home for Christmas break. In honor of American Heart Month, please welcome our newest FACE of TriStar, Haley Grizzell, heart survivor and freshman cheerleader who plans to pursue a career in teaching and counseling. (And by the way, she made the Dean’s list first semester.)

Haley Grizzell, today's FACE of TriStar

Haley Grizzell, heart survivor and FACE of TriStar

Were you scared before you went into surgery?

Haley: Well, apparently I was allergic to the wipes I had to do [Chlorhexidine Gloconate wipes are used to clean the skin before heart surgery to help prevent infection] because I kind of had a panic attack. I don’t remember much about that day, besides just being really panicky in the morning because of the wipes. I barely remember any of my hospital stay, but I remember the nurses were great. I wish I knew their names, but if I see their faces again, I’m pretty sure I would recognize them.

Lori, what about you? Were you scared?

Lori: I was scared because I’ve been a nurse for 25 years, and I’ve worked in the cardiac field for most of it. So, I knew the machines that she was on. The bypass machine is what worried me the most, where they have to stop the heart to do what they need to do. I just wanted her to get in, get it taken care of and get that over with. Once she got back to the room it was a relief for me because even though she had tubes and things, I could watch the monitor and know she was OK.

But, as she said, the nurses were awesome. They really catered to her age. They let friends come back in threes and fours in an ICU setting, which you don’t normally do. They put her in a room back in the corner so she wasn’t going to be a disturbance if she had visitors. I also can’t say enough for all the explaining because my husband isn’t medical, so we appreciated all the time taken to explain things to him and give him a comfort level.

Haley and her parents

Haley and her parents, Greg and Lori Grizzell

What did you think about Dr. Subramanian?

Haley: I love Dr. Subramanian. We have a weird connection. After he told me about the surgery, we kind of goofed off together. If someone else was doing the surgery, I’d be like, “No, I want Dr. Subramanian.”

Lori: They have a special connection, and I don’t know how to explain it either. He took a special interest in her case with her age. He paid attention to where the scar would be. If she had a bikini on, you wouldn’t know that she had surgery. He has children too, so I think that helps, but they just hit it off. She calls him Dr. Superman. We got him a Superman ornament for Christmas.

How long did the recovery take?

Haley: It was the whole summer. I wasn’t fully recovered until right before cheer camp.

Lori: She got cleared from Dr. Subramanian to go full activity on August 8, and then cheer camp started on August 18, and she was able to do the running they had to do at cheer camp.

Haley: We had to run two miles in under 20 minutes. It looked really unrealistic for me. I had to wait until a month before school to build up to running. I would power walk for a week, and then I would jog, and then I started to run. I think I did it in 21 minutes, but I was able to prove to myself that I could do it without stopping.

(And as Dr. Subramanian says, “To my surprise, they sent me a picture of Haley at the bottom of a human pyramid about three months after surgery.”)

How do you feel now compared to how you felt before surgery?

Haley: I took so many naps before heart surgery, and I thought that was normal. It would take me 23 minutes to get home from school, and I’d get home and go to sleep in my car.

Lori: I would come out and her car would be running, and she’d be asleep in the car. I’d knock on the window and say, “You need to get in the house.” She cheered basketball, and we would go to the games, and she would say, “Can you drive me and my car home because I just don’t feel like I can drive home?” So, my husband would drive the other vehicle and I would drive her car.

Haley: And now, I never stop moving at college. This is the first time I’ve been able to relax in awhile.

Are there other things you can do now that you couldn’t do before surgery?

Haley: I love being social, and I feel like I can talk to a person in detail and listen more because again, the tiredness has always affected me. I was drowsy all the time. I’m more bubbly a little bit. I don’t know. Mom, do you see that?

Lori: Before, you might have shut down when someone was telling you about a problem because you didn’t have the energy to deal with what they were telling you. Now, I feel like she has a lot of people come to her for help. I always tell her she should have good counseling skills because she’s a good listener, and she has the energy to listen, which I don’t think she had before.

Haley: I would try to listen, it just didn’t work.

Haley, how do you feel this experience shaped who you are today?

It’s helped me to encourage people. I know this is a cliché, but if something does get tough, you’ve got to keep going. I have a lot of friends at school who are having challenging times, and it’s just reassuring that I can help push them forward. It definitely made me more encouraging and compassionate and helped me realize that there are other things going on around me, if that makes sense.

Lori, you’re tearing up, are you proud of your daughter?

Lori: Yes, she’s always had a big heart, and she had a rough relationship during the first part of school, and I told her, “We paid to get your heart fixed, don’t let somebody tear it up.”

Haley: Also, I believe in God, and I’ve always had a relationship with God, but I think that summer from heart surgery kind of helped spike it more. I’m not going to say that I thought I was going to die, but I relied on God and my family, and that really helped that relationship.

Thank you to Haley and Lori for sharing their TriStar story. To learn more about TriStar Centennial Heart & Vascular Center, click here.

FACES of TriStar is sponsored by TriStar Health. Photography by Grannis Photography.