abrina Robinson was at home in Burlingame,
Kansas, with her son, Zachary, when she
suddenly got very hot. A licensed practical
nurse in a cardiologist’s office, she thought
she might be having a stroke. “I called 911,”
she said, “but within a minute or two I became so short of
breath and dizzy that I couldn’t talk, and Zachary took over.”
He had just turned 6 the week before.
When EMS arrived, they didn’t detect anything wrong.
Sabrina — aware that medical personnel doubted she had
any problems — insisted on going to the hospital, which
was in Topeka, Kansas, 35 miles away.
“I just started bawling,” said Sabrina, who was 36 at
the time. “I thought I was going to die in the back of the
ambulance with these people who thought I was faking it.”
Finally, halfway to Topeka, they determined that she was
having a heart attack and switched on the lights and siren.
The driver radioed the hospital that they were on the way.
The catheterization lab was ready by the time she arrived,
and there, a heart surgeon Sabrina knew told her that they
couldn’t place a stent because her left anterior descending
artery had torn.
“I knew all of these people, and I could tell from the
looks on their faces that I was in trouble,” Sabrina said.
More bad news followed. Surgery was the only option,
but it was complicated by the fact she had been given
blood thinners, standard protocol for heart attack patients
at that hospital. By then, husband Tony had arrived, and the
two quickly embraced in the hallway before she underwent
nearly 10 hours of surgery.
“When they got to that artery, there were tons of pieces
of blood clots,” she said. “I just wasn’t getting blood supply
to a part of my heart.”
The bottom of Sabrina’s heart had been deprived of
blood for so long that it no longer functioned. Doctors were
updating her husband, and initially, the outlook was grim.
“They came out an hour into the surgery and told him
that I probably wasn’t going to live, and to prepare himself
for that,” Sabrina said.
They weren’t exaggerating. It turned out that she has a rare
condition called fibromuscular dysplasia (FMD), which makes
arteries susceptible to tearing. Her heart attack had been
caused by a tear in a blood vessel to the heart. Such a tear is
called a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD).
Despite 18 sessions of cardiac rehab, three months after
her surgery Sabrina’s ejection fraction, which measures
how well the heart pumps, was well below normal, placing
her at risk for sudden cardiac death. So doctors implanted
a defibrillator, which she has nicknamed Gertrude: “So far
Gertie has not gone off,” she said.
Sabrina also joined a study at the Mayo Clinic, where
doctors are investigating FMD, which seems to affect
otherwise healthy people. Genetic researchers are also
involved, and son Zachary is being screened for the
Sabrina went back to work at the hospital after
recovering, and continues to work there while attending
school to further her medical education. She will graduate
with an R.N. in December 2016, on her 39th birthday.
“Because of my experience, I don’t approach things like
I used to. It makes me a lot more compassionate about
what people are going through, and the fear that they
Life Is Why
Survivor Sabrina Robinson with husband Tony and son Zachary