Road to recovery: senior Vickey Karl pursues her passions after successful open-heart surgery

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Courtesy of Vickey Karl

Senior Vickey Karl practices her dance on the turf before the upcoming show “Hejira a Desert Diary.” The performance was held at Fox High School during their preliminary competition Sept. 28. “I am very glad that the whole process went well. I feel much better mentally, and I am also physically improving as well,” Karl said. “I am excited to now be a part of color guard, and I am glad that the whole thing is over. Now, I can just enjoy myself without having to worry about my health.”

After being diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, also known as the thickening of the walls of the heart, senior Vickey Karl learned that she would need a very risky surgery to save her life. She started to develop the condition when she was born, but it went unnoticed until she found out at a doctor’s visit during her freshman year. 

“At first, I couldn’t believe it. I felt very scared and I didn’t know what to do next,” Karl said. “When the doctors told me about the surgery, I felt a huge relief. I was okay with getting it, and I knew that it would make me better and that I could do more things my senior year, which was totally worth it.”

After hearing the news, Karl found it difficult to adjust.

“For a while, [the diagnosis was] very difficult to process mentally, and I was super stressed out,” Karl said. “I knew the surgery was the right thing for me, even though I would have to sacrifice a lot of my time.”

Before the surgery, Karl could not participate in physical activity. 

“I couldn’t do any intense exercise, and I couldn’t run because I would experience intense pain, which was a huge disappointment,” Karl said. “I was also very exhausted all the time. I liked to watch scary movies, but I couldn’t do that either because I could get too excited.”

 

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Although Karl was able to participate in Color Guard her freshman year, she was unable to finish the season because of her health. 

“I started doing Color Guard for the first two months, and I was able to get to know everyone really well. I got better as the year went on until I was diagnosed and had to stop performing,” Karl said. “I have always loved Color Guard, and knowing that I could not be a part of it made me very sad because I have always enjoyed watching them perform. I was unable to be with my friends, which made me feel like I couldn’t enjoy life to the fullest, but I still had hope. I knew that it would eventually all be over after the surgery.”

I was unable to be with my friends, which made me feel like I couldn’t enjoy life to the fullest, but I still had hope. I knew that it would eventually all be over after the surgery,”

— senior Vickey Karl

Her surgery was performed at Cardinal Glennon Hospital in November 2018. When she arrived, she was immediately greeted by doctors and nurses as they put an IV in her arm.

“When I got to the hospital early in the morning, I was really stressed out, and once they put an IV in my arm, I was scared because I never liked needles. I remember asking myself, ‘what if this doesn’t work?’ and ‘how am I going to get through this?’ I knew that it was stupid to stress out about it because it was not going to make anything better,” Karl said. “The good thing was that my entire family was there supporting me, which made me feel better because I knew that they were with me.” 

During the surgery, the doctors had to cut the heart wall and remove the extra parts carefully to prevent it from getting damaged. 

“It was very risky, but I knew that it would help me a lot, so I trusted [the doctors]. They ended up performing the surgery very well,” Karl said. “I am very glad to have good doctors that knew what they were doing because if I didn’t, I don’t know what the outcome would have been.” 

After undergoing surgery, she had to go through the recovery process, which included an absence from school from Thanksgiving break until shortly after winter break her junior year.

“I had to miss the entire month of December. I missed all my finals and all of the end of course exams which was really tough, but I knew that I had good teachers that would help me get back on track,” Karl said. “I had to rest a lot and do activities like drawing and reading that would not cause my heart to exert. I felt sad that I had to miss school and was not be able to see my friends and that I was unable to perform like I used to.”

Courtesy of Vickey Karl
After her successful surgery, junior Vickey Karl relaxes in her hospital bed. The surgery lasted for six and a half hours, and her parents were there supporting her the whole time. “After waking up, I was so glad that my parents were there, and that [the surgery] was over,” Karl said. “I was already feeling better and doing well, and [with] my parents there the whole time, I knew I was going to be okay.”

Karl spent her freshman year doing light physical activity like walking, to help herself recover. Throughout her sophomore and junior year, Karl spent extra hours practicing so that she could be a major part of the Color Guard team. One of the dances that she practiced a lot, was the spinning rifle dance. 

“I really enjoyed [the spinning rifle dance] because it was a good way for me to practice my dance skills to prepare for the next performance. I eventually became a captain this year by working really hard in practice. All the work was worth it, and I felt motivated to get better,” Karl said. “I love being in color guard because I feel like I accomplished something way bigger than I have ever imagined. This last season is going to be a big accomplishment for me, and I am so excited.”

Karl was still searching for a way to share her experience. One night she was searching online and found that the American Heart Association has an ambassadors program. Karl applied and was accepted to be a part of the Go Red for Women campaign. Her story is featured on the St. Louis Real Women Survivor Gallery.

“I [was] overjoyed to be selected. I knew it was going to be a new outlet for me to express myself and tell people about my condition and what I have learned,” Karl said. “I was excited to have a new opportunity because of my heart problem, like a club you can only get into if you’ve got something special.” 

After all of her experiences, Karl hopes to spread her message, by attending local meetings and speaking to others about her medical experience. 

I want [people] to know that a heart disease doesn’t stop you, and that you can still pick yourself up from trauma and go right back to an amazing life and a healthy lifestyle,”

— senior Vickey Karl

“I want [people] to know that a heart disease doesn’t stop you, and that you can still pick yourself up from trauma and go right back to an amazing life and a healthy lifestyle,” Karl said. “Between being diagnosed and my surgery, I just felt like giving up. I hated all the medical visits and the poking and prodding of doctors; however, I knew I wouldn’t get better without it. Less than a year after my surgery, I became a captain of the Color Guard and did a full show, which further shows that having a diagnosis isn’t the end; it is merely the beginning of finding something new in your life, which is what I plan to teach.”