Brandy Barringer was strolling around the shopping mall the other day when she came face to face with a broken escalator. There it sat, still and silent, steep and menacing, as if summering or challenging or, better yet, taunting her.
Barringer took one step forward, then another, and another, until she’d reached the top. As she stepped onto the second floor, her sister, trailing with Barringer’s teenage daughter in tow, burst into tears.
“She was really surprised,” Barringer says, referring to her sister’s impromptu emotional release. “She said to me, ‘You would never have made it up all these stairs before without having to stop and sit down.’”
No biggie, Barringer thought. But, of course, it was.
When I met with Barringer at an outdoor pavilion at River Legacy Park, she told me how difficult it was to walk a few feet from the parking lot to the bench without panting and gasping for air. She has lived with a chronic heart condition from day one, and she’s 35. Her family learned early on about a heart ailment known for producing a distinctive swishing sound during heartbeats; Barringer’s grandmother also struggled with a heart murmur. This condition occurs when blood flows abnormally through the heart valves.
Along with the heart murmur, Barringer also dealt with pulmonary valve stenosis. Her formative years were dotted with multiple surgeries.
“Pulmonary valve stenosis happens when the valve that is located between the heart’s right chamber and lung arteries becomes narrow,” Barringer explains rather nonchalantly. “It reduces and sometimes blocks blood flow.”
In other words, she could run around one minute and land face down in the dirt the next.
“If I was not getting good blood flow,” Barringer adds, again, as if speaking about something that wasn’t death-defying, “it was causing me to pass out as a child.”
Having a daughter put an extra strain on Barringer’s heart, eventually disintegrating her valve. By December of 2009, Barringer was diagnosed with full-blown heart failure. She had the valve replaced.
That’s when Barringer enrolled in a cardiac rehab program at Texas Health Arlington Memorial. It’s a little like working out at your neighborhood fitness center, except you’re wearing a telemetry monitor as you exercise. Your heart rhythms are displayed on a large monitor constantly viewed by staff. Mostly, she was taught how to exercise without doing too much. She got more robust with each session.
“Before my first round of cardiac rehab, my energy level was horrible, and it’s depressing when you don’t have the strength to just walk through the mall with your daughter,” Barringer says. “It’s so depressing that you don’t even want to interact with anyone.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that behavioral challenges, such as depression, sometimes develop long after a cardiac event.
“When patients come to us, we focus on healing both the mind and body,” says Brenda Doughty, cardiac rehabilitation manager at Arlington Memorial. “Along with building physical endurance and confidence, our program offers courses that improve an individual’s psychosocial well-being.”
“They can say, ‘hey, let’s try bumping this elevation up,’” Barringer says. “Speed up a little. See how that feels.”
Arlington Memorial being “home” helps. She was born there. Her daughter was born there. She was treated there early on, and the cardiac rehab she just ended was her second time.
“I was here when Brandy came through cardiac rehab the first time,” Doughty says. “She stood out because she was such a young lady. This second time around, she opened her heart to the other people in cardiac rehab. This is such a loving and accepting environment that much of her encouragement came from her classmates. Now she’s the encourager.”
For better or worse, her family-like relationship will continue. Her replacement valve won’t last forever. She might be back in cardiac rehab.
“Hopefully, this valve will last me more than 10 years,” she says, “and Ms. Brenda will still be there when I return.”