Linda Riley knew something was wrong; she just didn’t know what. “I kept feeling pressure, heaviness, like I couldn’t breathe, like I was smothering,” remembers the 66-year-old. She says she was concerned she was having panic attacks due to anxiety. “Every time, it turned out to be angina (which is chest pain).”
Then, in December of 1994, Riley felt exhausted. Really exhausted. She attributed the fatigue to her full days spent caring for her young granddaughter while her daughter worked, then coming home and keeping her own house running. Luckily, Riley’s husband insisted the fatigue was more than even such a busy woman should expect, and he took her to the emergency room.
That’s when she was diagnosed with 90 percent blockage in her arteries.
“It was such a shock,” she emphasizes. “Blockage? I had blockage? I was always moving, constantly doing. I didn’t sit there and eat chips and candy bars all day.”
That trip to the ER introduced Riley to Dr. Christine Zirafi, who was on call that night. “She saved my life,” says this woman of deep faith. “She’s an angel who God put into my life.” After the first catheterization to address the blockage, Riley tried to follow Dr. Zirafi’s plan. “She said, ‘Linda, you’ve got to lose weight.’ I would lose five pounds and gain eight. But Dr. Zirafi had so much patience with me. She could have probably said, ‘Hey Linda, you’re not losing the weight.’ But she still kept me [as a patient]. She was so patient with me and kept encouraging me.”
Over the next two decades, Riley had another catheterization and three stents, all of which helped the symptoms for a time. But the angina kept coming back, and finally it got even worse. “It would wake me up,” she remembers. “My heart was just racing out of me. I’d take heart medication that I’d been prescribed, and it just kept happening.”
That’s when Dr. Zirafi sent Riley to Dr. Mauricio Arruda for an ablation, which was performed on March 20, 2014. “Dr. Arruda took care of me. My husband told him, ‘I have a brand-new wife,’” Riley says with feeling. “I’ve not had a problem at all. It’s like a miracle.”
She’s extremely grateful for the care she received from Dr. Zirafi, Dr. Arruda and the staff at University Hospitals Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute, both at UH Cleveland Medical Center and UH Parma Medical Center. “I felt like I was a queen in UH,” she remembers. “It was like God put the best staff there — I’m not saying I’m better than any other person, but it was perfect for me.” She laughs, “I would wake up with a dry mouth and the water or ginger ale were already there.”
Riley is more mindful now of the way she eats (“I’m a picker, I don’t sit down and eat what I should,” she admits), especially since she has type 2 diabetes, and tries to exercise more. And she’s extremely grateful for the way things turned out. “I thank God every day,” she says, “I do.”
As featured in the February 2015 issue of Cleveland Magazine
By Ruth Corradi Beach