Getting to the heart of a cause

Holly Morrell was told she was 90 seconds from death.

It was July 2012 at Burbank's Providence St. Joseph's Medical Center. Cardio-thoracic surgeon Raymond Schaerf was trying to remove two fractured leads — wires that connect the heart to a defibrillator or pacemaker — when a vein burst.

What started as a scheduled procedure turned into emergency surgery. Morrell's blood pressure dropped. Schaerf quickly opened Morrell's chest cavity and sutured the ruptured vein.

Morrell, 46, of Laguna Beach, has heart disease, also called hypertrophic myopathy. She has been through six heart surgeries in her life and has an implanted battery-powered defibrillator.

"A brush with death made me realize how many aren't as lucky as me," Morrell said over the phone earlier this week.

One in four deaths in the United States are the result of heart disease, the Centers for Disease Control reports on its website. About 600,000 Americans die of heart disease each year.

Although Morrell wasn't officially diagnosed with heart disease until 2002 (the year a defibrillator was implanted in her body), she started promoting early detection for heart disease in 1999.

In 2007, she founded Heartfelt Cardiac Projects, an organization that provides screenings to detect heart abnormalities. In six years, 27,000 people have been tested during the screenings, she said. Last year, her work protected the lives of two teens and two adults in Orange County.

Heart disease runs in Morrell's family. Nine of 11 family members have been diagnosed with the condition. Six have died. Her cousin has a transplanted heart.

"My dad [who also had heart disease] would share stories of young athletes dying on the playing field," Morrell said. "I couldn't understand that if [heart disease] affects 1 out of 500 people why doesn't anyone know about it?"

Thus her mission to educate the public about the difference between a heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest was born.

Morrell said Schaerf, who has performed about 3,000 lead extractions, told her only two weeks ago how close she was to dying back in July.

"It was better emotionally," Morrell said.

Schaerf said he had encountered similar emergencies as Morrell's, but time was critical.

"I still had to get the wire out and control the bleeding," he said.

Morrell spent six days in the hospital and couldn't drive for five months. She started walking soon after going home but endured pain in her upper body for some time. Morrell started acupuncture therapy to deal with the pain, and friends and family tended to her in the weeks after she came home from the hospital.

"For the first 7 1/2 weeks I was never by myself for more than an hour," Morrell said.

She used to be an avid tennis player. After the latest surgery she's had to alter her exercise routine, which means no more tennis.

"He said, 'You can stay active, but you can't be involved in anything repetitive with your arms,"' Morrell said of Schaerf's instructions.

She has returned to yoga and taken up biking. She's ridden her electric bike to San Clemente and Camp Pendleton on separate occasions.

"Right now it's heart-breaking," Morrell said of not being able to play tennis, "but it hasn't hit the hardest because I still don't have full range of motion in my arms."

This Saturday, Morrell, with the help of her acupuncturist, Evonne Kane, will host a screening in recognition of National Heart Month.

The screening will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Kane's acupuncture center, Five Seasons Healthcare, in the Monarch Bay shopping center, 28 Monarch Bay Plaza, Suite A in Dana Point. Anyone 5 or older is eligible for the painless, non-invasive 20-minute screening.

It was after one of these screenings that Cheyne Jernigan, a San Clemente High student, learned she had a congenital heart defect.

Cheyne, now 15, saw a posting by the Capistrano Unified School District for a screening in 2011.

"I had just came home from a soccer game and it was for a donation, so we said, 'Why not?'" Jernigan said of the screening. "Nothing prompted the [tests]. There were no symptoms."

Test results were mailed to Jernigan's home with a letter saying she could check with a doctor for a follow-up, but it was optional. Jernigan followed up and was tested again and found out she had a hole the size of a dime, also called atrial septal defect, on the top portion of her heart.

"It was significantly harder for her heart to pump blood to the rest of the body," explained Jernigan's mom, Tania.

Cheyne had open-heart surgery a month after the initial screening. Doctors stitched the hole in her heart.

"It freaked me out, but [my mom] said I had to do it," Cheyne said.

She spent five days in the Intensive Care Unit at Children's Hospital of Orange County. She walked out and had no pain. The nausea was more prominent, Cheyne said.

Six weeks later she was back on the field playing soccer with her club team. If Cheyne hadn't gotten the surgery, she would have risked having a stroke later in life.

"I am totally grateful to [Morrell]," Tania Jernigan said.

"I never thought in a million years that something would happen," Cheyne said. "I was lucky I found out early."

Heartfelt offers screenings for a tax-deductible $85 donation. The tests normally cost $1,500, Morrell said.

For more information on Heartfelt Cardiac Projects, visit

Twitter: @AldertonBryce

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