Six months ago, Michele Golden of Batavia couldn't be certain she'd be around to celebrate this February as American Heart Month. The energetic 63-year-old grandmother, an avid dancer and bicycle rider, had been diagnosed with cardiac sarcoidosis, a rare ailment that damaged her heart.
"The first time I met her she looked very ill. She was definitely struggling mightily," remembers Dr. Mark J. Ricciardi, director of cardiac cath labs and interventional cardiology for Northwestern Medicine. "She was well on the road to getting listed for a heart transplant."
Golden, whose heart woes surfaced two years after her mother died in her arms of heart disease in 2014, was worried. "It was a very dark place," Golden remembers.
"I couldn't get from my bed to the bathroom," she says, adding that she couldn't even make her breakfast without pausing to rest. "The eggs are done, and then I'd have to sit down before I could get the toast."
With her heart working at less than a third of normal function, Golden wasn't healthy enough to survive open-heart surgery. She needed to get healthier just to qualify for a spot on the waiting list for a new heart. Ricciardi says Golden was making frequent visits to the emergency room last year even though she was receiving excellent care from Dr. Michelle C. Montpetit, a cardiologist with Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital who specializes in heart failure and transplants.
Had Golden been in that situation a decade ago, she probably would have died.
But in September, Ricciardi and the team at Northwestern Memorial Hospital used a minimally invasive, nonsurgical treatment to try to improve Golden's heart function. A catheter inserted through Golden's femoral vein in her leg delivered a MitraClip device to her heart, where it was deployed to clip together the two flaps, or leaflets, of her mitral valve. The hope was that the device, approved by the FDA in 2013, would reduce or even eliminate the backward flow of blood, stabilize Golden and qualify her for the transplant list.
"The week before Christmas, I got the call that I wasn't a candidate for a heart transplant," Golden says. But it wasn't for the reason she feared.
"She was too healthy," Ricciardi says. The cardiologist says Golden's response to the treatment has been "borderline miraculous."
"For two years, we were talking about a heart transplant for me," says Golden, who switched priorities the minute she felt better. "My goal was Jan. 1, sign up at the gym."
When she puts her mind to a task, Golden has a good track record. She dropped out of high school her junior year to have a baby and get married. As a stay-at-home mom for sons Matt and Chad, Golden didn't work outside the home until she and her husband decided to divorce after 28 years. Working with her local library, she graduated from St. Charles High School in 1998. Elgin Community College helped her with career plans. "They created this fantastic resume. I didn't know how great I was," Golden says with a laugh.
That led to a job at Wyndemere, where she worked her way up to program coordinator for the retirement community in Wheaton.
"Here comes that blonde bombshell," Golden says, remembering how the older residents would greet her. "I'm a dancer. I do the two-step, the triple-step, the waltz, cha-chas, the East Coast swing, the West Coast swing and lots of line dancing."
When her mother, Theresa Ohnstad, became ill, Golden became her full-time caretaker. After her mother died, Golden took a job working in a school cafeteria. But her energy waned. Her 4-mile bike rides became impossible. From her first ER visit in 2016 to her last in August 2017, Golden was in decline. Now Golden is a workout beast at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Health & Fitness Center in Geneva, where she runs through an array of exercises with ropes, weighted balls and machines for 90 minutes to three hours a day, generally five days a week. That's how she earned her "Spirited Athlete of the Month" award.
Instead of preparing herself for a heart transplant, she's building up for next month's heart stress test.
"Can't wait, can't wait, I can't wait to see where I am," Golden says.
"She wants to show off," says Ricciardi. "She's pretty special. She's so upbeat. Her outlook looks pretty darn good."