Faithful Heart

Wilfert’s life-changing diagnosis can teach us all about health, life, faith

  • Sherry Wilfert holds the heart pillow given to her after open heart bypass surgery at Parkwest. Many of her caretakers signed it. - Photos by Cindy Wilfert

  • Sherry was reunited with her ‘grand-dog,’ Pippin, on the day she came home from the hospital. - Photos by Cindy Wilfert

Sherry Wilfert received an unusual gift for the Christmas of 2022 – a new “interstate system” for her heart.

On December 23, she had CABG. The acronym stands for Coronary Artery Bypass Graft. In other words, she had a triple bypass open heart surgery.

It was unexpected. Sherry, a 66-year old Farragut resident, had never experienced cardiac issues before. She’d been diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes only a few months prior; it was a borderline case that did not even require daily blood sugar testing. Overall, she was in good health. She ate a healthy diet and was not overweight. She exercised most days and was very active, often getting over 15,000 steps each day.

Sherry taught three- and four-year olds for over twenty years and now works as Curriculum Specialist at Concord Christian Preschool. Friends were shocked when she needed heart surgery, expressing that she was the healthiest among them.

The trouble started two weeks before Christmas. “I felt God was telling me to go to Alabama to visit my 92-year-old Dad,” Sherry said. This was odd because she already had plans to see him on Christmas Eve for a family celebration. But she also wanted to see some extended family members she would not get to see on the planned visit.

Then she learned that the mother of one of her friends had passed away suddenly. “This was my sign to go to Alabama the next day. I said, I don’t know what might happen … to my Dad, to either of my aunts or my uncle, or even to me.”

She made the four and a half hour trip on Saturday morning. On Sunday, she experienced her first symptoms. “I was on my daily morning walk when I began to have discomfort in my upper arms, mostly in the left,” she said.

She had no other symptoms that day as she went to church with her father and later drove home. But as the week went on, the symptoms persisted. “I would feel the discomfort in my arms upon less and less exertion. Later in the week, just a short walk would bring on the discomfort and also shortness of breath, but it would go away in five minutes.

Then she woke up in the middle of the night with upper arm pain in both arms and a tight feeling across her chest. This, too, went away quickly when she sat up. But she knew it was time to seek help.

The next day, she contacted her doctor. But her Primary Care physician was out of the office for a few days, so the nurse instructed Sherry to go to the emergency room. “I worked the rest of the morning, went home and had lunch, and drove myself to Parkwest ER,” she said.

An initial EKG showed nothing of concern, so Sherry was put through a simplified version of a stress test with a short walk around the emergency room area until she felt the pain. A second EKG then showed irregularity. A cardiologist was called in, and a heart cath was scheduled for the next day.

The hope was that it would be a simple blockage and a stent could be done during the cath procedure.

But that was not the case for Sherry. “My cardiologist told me I needed bypass. I had a 95% blockage on the right side which could have been stented…but I also had an 80% blockage on my main left descending artery which required bypass surgery.”

“It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but I accepted it as God’s will for me,” Sherry said. “It was the 95% blockage that was causing the symptoms. It got me to the ER, but God wanted me to also know about the 80% main artery blockage before it caused any damage. God is so good!”

It was Tuesday; the surgery was scheduled for Friday morning. In the meantime Sherry had to stay in the hospital, and pre-surgery testing began. “The first test showed my heart valves were good,” she said.

Then an ultrasound of the carotid arteries in the neck threw another curveball into the situation. It showed an 80% blockage on the left side. A CT scan confirmed it. So another surgical team came to discuss options with Sherry. Since she was not experiencing any stroke symptoms, they decided that the heart took precedence. Carotid surgery would wait until after she’d healed from CABG.

Vein mapping was done on her legs to determine which vein would be used for the grafting. This too was a complication, and Sherry was told that she has very small veins. They then mapped her arms as well. She learned that her surgeon would use an arm vein if needed, if she was okay with it. “I told him to use whatever he needed; that I wasn’t ‘vain’ about my veins!” she said.

In the pre-dawn hours of December 23, as a cold front moved through and temperatures outside plummeted into the single digits, Sherry was moved from her room and prepped for surgery. The procedure took about four hours. The initial stages went longer than expected as the team harvested the vein from her leg, but found it unusable and had to take the vein from her left arm as well. The bypass stage went smoothly and the surgery was successful.

Sherry, of course, knew nothing of this until later. “I don’t remember the breathing tube at all,” she said, referring to the initial stages of waking in Critical Care.

Best case recovery scenario laid out by the hospital would have seen her in the Critical Care unit for only a day or two, but Sherry spent the entire long holiday weekend there. “I originally told people that my Christmas gift would be to be out of CCU and into a room on the Cardiac floor by Christmas Day,” she said. “But God had other plans for me. I stayed in CCU 2 days past Christmas because I had problems with nausea and a few episodes of AFib.”

The extra time to recoup strength was a blessing. “The staff in the CCU were so good to me. After everything, I was glad to be there the extra days! My Christmas present was receiving the care I needed. God knew what was best for me.”

Sherry was moved out to a room on December 27 and progressed rapidly after that point. She regained her appetite and walked the hallways with physical therapy staff. She was released and went home on December 29, ten days after she’d first gone to the emergency room.

That was perhaps the hardest part of the recovery journey, but it was still just the beginning. There was a plethora of prescriptions to keep straight, breathing exercises to keep her lungs clear, and lots of rest needed and precautions to take. But she progressed a bit each day, soon regaining more and more independence. She began cardiac rehab two weeks after her release and is now attending every weekday morning. She just began to drive again.

She’s very grateful for the care she received at Parkwest and for the community of friends and family who reached out in support.

“Through all of this process, God gave me such a peace that I wasn’t afraid or apprehensive about anything. I could see His hand in every step,” Sherry said.

Next up is another surgery for the blockage in the carotid. She’ll surely face it with the same peace and assurance as dealt with the CABG.

“In the past, I’d sometimes found it difficult to share my faith,” Sherry said. “But throughout this experience, I was able to share my story and witness to most all of the staff at Parkwest that I interacted with. And once I got home, I talked to many friends, family and neighbors.

“I feel like God had me take this journey to build my faith and to give me a testimony to go and tell others.”