Affair of the heart

Couple finds new rhythm after medical problems

Posted: Sunday, February 13, 2005


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  Judy DeVito says exercise is important for a healthy heart. She works out with other patients in a therapy room at Central Peninsula General Hospital. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Judy and Spencer DeVito have devoted themselves to advocating a heart-healthy lifestyle following Judy's heart problems.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Judy DeVito is a woman with a passion for teaching and caring for others. What is not apparent when first meeting her, though, is the trouble with her physical heart.

DeVito regularly shows up to the Kenai Peninsula College campus sporting a smile and coordinating brisk step. DeVito, however, is not one of the students. She is an adjunct staff member co-teaching a course called policies, practices and procedures for early childhood development with her daughter, Lynn Dusek.

DeVito started one of the first state-operated kindergartens in 1968 and has been teaching school for 25 years. She also has been a leader in Head Start programs, a state consultant in early childhood issues and has served as a mentor for remote graduate students and Native groups.

"I have known Judy DeVito since 1954. That's a half a century," said her husband, Spence DeVito. "She has been my life, my love, my wife and my best friend.

"One thing I can assure is the fact that she is a very 'personal' person who never wants credit or recognition for anything. She is reluctant to be the center of attention because she likes to remain 'low-key,' sort of in the background," he said.

Just say the word "educate" and Judy's eyes light up.

According to Sherril Miller, education coordinator at KPC, Judy has been a coordinator, mentor and advocate for her students — all the way from kindergarten to college students.

"She is a master teacher. She has single-handedly kept the (early childhood development) courses going for many years. Talk about having the heart of a teacher," Miller said.

However, the heart of a healthy woman, she did not have.

Five years ago, Judy was doing what she thought were all the right things. Though she didn't make regular visits to a doctor, she led a fairly healthy lifestyle and exercised on her treadmill regularly.

"Women have the stress of children. We don't often pay attention to our own aches and pains. Nowadays women also work outside of the home, and they still come home to the dishes and the laundry," she said.

Then, at an educators' conference in Sitka, she passed out cold.

While she was at her checkup, doctors discovered a congenital aortic valve problem. The valve would have to be replaced. The surgery was to be simple and the recovery quick.

"My doctor said the odds of anything going wrong was only about 1 or 2 percent, but that's not how it turned out," Judy said. "Almost everything that could go wrong, did go wrong."

Spence remembers being shocked at what his wife went through.

"When she went into the operation, we all expected a very routine mitro valve replacement," he said. "The results were many complications and hours of surgery. They replaced two heart valves, the mitoral valve and then the aorta valve because it shut down and wouldn't open.

"They didn't just have another valve on the shelf like in the grocery store. They had to improvise the valve size and replace it immediately. That then resulted in three unplanned, unexpected bypasses. Only after loosing and replacing 28 units of blood, did the loss of blood finally come in check," he said.

Judy then had a stroke on the operating table, causing a severe loss of sight in her right eye and loss of much of her peripheral sight in the other, making her legally blind in medical terms.

"It's a big problem for her, but she never complains, only makes adjustments," Spence said. "Looking at her and talking with her, one would never know the extent of what she has been through, notice how well she handles that."

Judy said she feels fortunate her husband and children were by her side during the ordeal.

"Their support before the surgery helped minimize the apprehension and fears of the unknown," she said.

She was in a drug-induced coma for much of her time in ICU after her surgery and only remembers fragments of what happened during that time.

"I recall Spence helping turn me over, my kids always talking and reassuring me and the nurses showing me pictures of my grandkids, which were displayed for me," she said.

All and all, Judy spent nearly a month in ICU, while doctors and nurses constantly monitored a myriad of mechanical devices to keep her alive and friends and family nurtured her back to health.

"Each day she fought the odds and never once complained about the pain," Spence said. "All she wanted was to get well so she could take care of her family, her grandkids and her students at the college."


Judy DeVito says exercise is important for a healthy heart. She works out with other patients in a therapy room at Central Peninsula General Hospital.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

After Judy was released from the hospital, she and Spence returned home and began the process of adjusting to a heart-healthy lifestyle.

It was a difficult process at first.

"Spence was unbelievably protective. He was so concerned about my diet that he hid all the salt and salt shakers," she said, adding she found them weeks later in a tiny cupboard above the stove.

Spence cooked for her, but his attempts at cooking healthy ended up tasting bland.

"Finally, some of my friends, on a strict review about my diet, brought homemade chicken soup over. I was in seventh heaven eating and enjoying some 'real' food with some flavor."

As weeks passed, Spence started mastering combining his usually tasty dishes with doctor's orders, like salmon, Judy said.

"I never really cared for fish, but wow did that taste great!"

Spence said his wife's road to recovery has been exciting to monitor.

"She faithfully goes to rehabilitation three times a week, swims the other two days and monitors her eating habits carefully," he said.

"Exercise, exercise, exercise and change your eating habits — that's the name of the game," Judy said.

Ever the educator, her appetite soon turned to learning all she could about heart health. She was selected to receive a grant last year to attended a symposium on Women and Heart Disease at the Mayo Clinic.

Now, as well as being the proud owner of several new and healthier cookbooks, she has a massive collection of papers, books, brochures and other resources — many of which she has donated to Central Peninsula General Hospital — all concerning heart issues and prevention. She's even developed a Power Point presentation on the subject.

As a result, when she is not busy with her career as an educator, a wife to Spence, mother times four and a grandmother of seven, Judy devotes herself to "spreading the word" about heart health.

"I look at life and death from a different perspective now — I am no longer afraid of death, but while I am here, I want to live well," she said.

A few of the many groups Judy has given her presentation to are the Soroptimists, Red Hat Society, League of Women Voters and several Take Pounds of Sensibly (TOPS) groups.

"One thing I liked about speaking with these groups was they were already motivated to learn more about health issues and willing to make changes. Most of my information is about women's hearts, but so many of the risk factors, healthy eating styles, exercise, etc., apply to both sexes," she said.

Judy said experiencing heart troubles has changed her life in some ways.

"My organizational skills have deteriorated — must be from the stroke — so I make lots of lists and mental reminders to stay on task. If not, I can start 100 different tasks and never finish even one — very frustrating since I once was quite organized."

She said her left vocal cord was damaged by either the stroke or her heart problems, so now she can only sing about six or seven bass notes.

"As a retired kindergarten teacher who once sang as part of my job, that was a surprising loss," she said.

She also can't speak around lots of noise and confusion since the strain of it tires her quickly. Until recently, she had to use a microphone while teaching at KPC.

To compensate for her eyesight impairment, she now does her driving during the day.

Another way things have changed is her approach to shopping. She now uses the food pyramid as a guide, buying a variety of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, olive or canola oil, lots of dark green vegetables, bright-colored fruits, fish, beans and nuts. Garlic and red wine also are on her grocery list, and she avoids buying foods and drinks high in sugar and salt.

Even though she was an "exerciser" before, she said she has "stepped up" her walking and swimming schedule.

"The last time I saw the cardiologist, my levels were not only good, they were low. And do you know what he said? He said, 'Exercise, exercise, exercise!'"

One thing that hasn't changed for Judy is her close relationship and commitment to her family, faith and education.

"When I teach I always think, 'If I can just make a difference in one person's life, then it was worth it.' The main message I want to get out is how important it is for people to learn about their hearts. There's a lot to learn — I get new information every day — but if people are educated they will be more likely to get check-ups, recognize symptoms and they will ask better questions regarding their own health. One thing that few people know is that the symptoms of serious heart troubles are often subtle, especially in women patients. Heart attacks seldom announce themselves."

Now in addition to teaching education classes, Judy has the added task of teaching about heart health.

"I hope that by sharing my story it can make a difference in many people's lives," she said.

In the course of this story, Spence wrote a love letter about his wife. Among many admiring thoughts, he ended with this:

"I forgot to mention one of the other medical problems she had. It was a severely enlarged heart, which had to be shaved and made smaller. It's no wonder it was enlarged, because Judy is an unusually big hearted lady!"

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