When Rupa woke up one early morning in April to a crackling sound nearby, she assumed it must be something breaking inside her house.
It took the 62-year-old fitness buff a moment to realize that the sound was actually coming from her own throat.
“It was truly weird. I mean, I went downstairs to drink a cup of water and I couldn’t even breathe,” Rupa says.
As an accomplished career woman and mom – who spent most days working out at high-endurance fitness classes and taking three-mile walks – this was not something she had experienced before.
Rupa started to realize that something was very wrong. She thought it might be COVID-19, as cases were beginning to ramp up in the area.
“I went to the doctor and they asked me a laundry list of questions, but at the time my only symptoms were the sound in my throat and losing my breath,” she says.
Over the next month, as doctors ruled out common illnesses like bronchitis and pneumonia, they began to consider more serious conditions. They recommended that Rupa get an echocardiogram, an ultrasound test that could help them rule out heart disease.
Surviving the surprising news
The test showed Rupa was suffering from pulmonary hypertension, due to a mitral valve that wasn’t properly functioning and had detached from her heart. This was the valve responsible for sending blood flow across her body. As a result, there was a backwash of oxygenated blood going back into her left atrium that made her more and more fatigued.
Rupa’s cardiologist at the time told her it could be treated with medication. But after other medical consultations, Rupa realized the condition could still get worse – and wanted to take a more aggressive path to permanently solve it.
As a working professional, wife, and mother accustomed to a fast-paced, in-control lifestyle, slowing down was not an option. Rupa needed a solution that wouldn’t interfere with the life and work she valued – and she wouldn’t settle for less. She needed a doctor who would take her lifestyle into consideration when planning a treatment path.
“In a short time, I was already seeing the quality of my life go downhill. I knew I needed to be proactive and asked my cardiologist to refer me to a cardiothoracic surgeon for a consultation” Rupa says.
Soon after, Rupa was referred to Dr. Bob Kiaii, an internationally renowned heart surgeon, recognized by her cardiologist as “the best in the area” despite being more than 50 miles away from her home in Napa. She knew she was willing to travel for a doctor she could trust, and found herself on the phone with him within 20 minutes.
“I didn’t know what to expect. The previous cardiologist had made it seem like no big deal. But Dr. Kiaii explained everything to me in much more detail. He really cared and listened – and it showed.”
The nurses were just great. It’s a humbling experience to be in intensive care, and they made me feel comfortable.
Finding the right doctor
Dr. Kiaii immediately recommended a cardiac catheterization. It showed Rupa’s heart muscle was still very strong, which meant she was a perfect candidate to have her mitral valve repaired.
And there was increased urgency, too. Rupa’s heart chamber had enlarged over time by the backwash in the left atrium. Because of this, Dr. Kiaii and UC Davis Health were able to get Rupa in for surgery within a matter of days.
Rupa had time to discuss all of her concerns with Dr. Kiaii in one-on-one conversations – including her desire to not miss too much time away from work, which he knew was a critical concern for her.
“I wanted to get it done as soon as possible, and I knew as we got closer to fall, work would pick up for me,” Rupa explains. “They took this into consideration, too. I knew I wanted to recuperate as quickly as possible and get back to life.”
Rupa says from the moment she walked in on the day of surgery, she felt confident.
“The staff was excellent and Dr. Kiaii had extremely good bedside manner. On surgery day, there was an emergency case that delayed my surgery. He and his staff kept checking on me and updated me about the delay. But I wasn’t worried since I had nowhere else to be!”
Over the next few days following her open-heart surgery, Rupa was already feeling better.
“The nurses were just great. It’s a humbling experience to be in intensive care, and they made me feel comfortable,” she says.
By day two, Rupa was able to walk around her hospital room, check work emails from her bed, and on the final day in the hospital she wrote uplifting messages on the board for the care staff.
“I was feeling so good and just thinking – ‘ok, now what do I do with my time?’ I truly feel like I had the fastest recovery I could’ve imagined. I believe having a caring team of doctors and nurses really helped.”
And she only continued to improve.
“For most people the fear of the unknown keeps them from making the right decisions about their health. In my case, surgery was the best option and I knew that having a positive frame of mind would certainly help me with the recovery. I kept telling myself, ‘You’ve got this,’” Rupa says.
When she got home, she felt better than ever.
“What amazed me is that I felt the difference immediately. It wasn’t hard to breathe anymore. It wasn’t hard to climb stairs. It didn’t even take a day – I felt it right away.”
Rupa continued to see Dr. Kiaii through virtual visits as she was healing. She’s since made a full recovery and is back to walking three miles a day and working full-time – feeling strong enough to continue her busy lifestyle. All because she found a doctor who truly listened to what she needed.
“I would tell anyone: find a doctor you trust. Get what you need done. Get yourself back to health. So, you can truly enjoy life again.”