How a Panic Attack Saved One Woman's Life

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Contessa on horseback

“A panic attack saved my life.” It had been years since Contessa Somerville visited a doctor. She hadn’t need to - by all accounts she was perfectly healthy. Until last February, when seemingly out-of-the-blue she felt her heart racing. She assumed she was having a panic attack, only there was nothing to panic about.

Her fiancé convinced her to see a doctor at UH Portage Medical Center. When her upper extremity blood pressure came back in the upper 180s, Contessa was referred to Dr. Martin Bocks – one of only a few specially-trained adult congenital heart disease doctors in Ohio.

Dr. Bocks found that Contessa had coarctation of the aorta, a congenital heart defect where the aorta is narrower than usual, forcing the heart to pump harder to get blood through to the rest of the body. Her condition was so severe that she was treated almost immediately in the Cath Lab at UH Rainbow, where Dr. Bocks widened her aorta and placed a stent.

“Contessa’s story is a great example of the importance of blood pressure screening, and the need to look for secondary causes of hypertension in otherwise healthy females,” says Dr. Bocks. “Contessa’s condition should have been diagnosed many years ago, and we are fortunate she came to us when she did.”

Contessa is back to doing what she loves most - caring for her horses! Her blood pressures are now normal, and she no longer has to take any medication. Overall, she says she feels great, almost like the scare with her heart never happened.

“The last 12 months have been a rollercoaster ride of emotions I wouldn’t want to repeat. But I’m so grateful UH discovered my congenital heart defect when they did, or I might not be here today.”

UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital and Nationwide Children’s Hospital have partnered to form the Congenital Heart Collaborative, an innovative model of care for patients with congenital heart disease from before birth to adulthood. Learn more about the Congenital Heart Collaborative.

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