By Tom Corwin The Augusta Chronicle, Ga.
It wasn't the first heart attack, or the second one, or the third that really got Dr. Sarah Ferguson to focus on the problem.
It was the triple bypass surgery, where they weren't sure if she would live, that woke her up.
"I had to want to survive," said Ferguson, 61, of Evans. Her survival now includes a "mechanical heart" left ventricular assist device that helps her heart pump blood, which her children joke makes her a "cyborg."
Ferguson has chronicled her journey and the faith that inspired her and sustained her in a new book, A Killer Within: Down But Not Out. It comes out Wednesday and is available at Whole Life Ministries bookstore and on Amazon.com.
Heart disease runs in her family -- her father died of a massive heart attack at age 42 -- but the minister and mother of two didn't recognize initially what was happening when at age 40 in June 1994 she had her first massive heart attack.
"I thought I was having heartburn, I had no idea I was having a heart attack," she said. This despite having the classic signs of pain in her left arm, in the left side of her neck and nausea. Luckily, her next door neighbor was a registered nurse.
"She came over and immediately knew what was happening," Ferguson said. But despite barely surviving that massive heart attack, she admits she was in denial.
"I didn't do any of the things they told me to do," Ferguson said. "I just could not believe I had a heart attack and I acted like it, too. I was very defiant, very non-compliant."
She continued to stress out, trying to launch a new ministry while caring for two young boys and only grabbing a few hours of sleep a night. Ferguson had hoped the problem would go away but a couple of months later she had her second heart attack, Still reeling from that, she had her third in November and was scheduled for bypass surgery on Thanksgiving Day as the "only chance I had," Ferguson said. "They really didn't think I would survive that surgery."
It was then that it occurred to her that she had a choice in that.
"You think you're going to die. Do you want to live?" Ferguson said. "You have to make up in your mind which one you are going to do and how you're going to do it, how you're going to survive. It was a day by day issue for me."
She knew she wanted to rely on her faith to get her through and turned to Scripture as well as reading everything she could on healing.
"If you're fighting for your life, you have to find something to hold on to," Ferguson said. "And for me, it was the word of God, my faith." But dealing with serious heart issues can also mean depression and Ferguson said she had to face that, including whether she was having suicidal thoughts, and deal with it.
"That's why I got help," she said. "I had a wonderful counselor. It's extremely hard, because most people will think, 'I can handle it on my own' but you cannot."
Her heart also continued to weaken and eventually her doctor at Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center referred her to St. Joseph Hospital for the mechanical assist device. Immediately, she said, she noticed a difference. Now, she can travel, doesn't need supplemental oxygen and can do just about everything she wants to do.
"The only drawback about it is you can't swim," she said, as she held up the battery pack that attaches to it on the outside. A lot of doctors don't refer patients for the devices and a lot of patients don't know to ask for it. The devices are often considered to be a "bridge" to a heart transplant later but at this point Ferguson said she is doing so well she is not sure "whether I even want a transplant now. It's a hard decision to make."
In the meantime, she offers her survivor's perspective and hopes that those who read her story can take a lesson from what she has gone through.
"I hope that they would slow down, especially women, and pay attention to their bodies," Ferguson said. "We think we are indispensable. You are there for everybody else but you pay very little attention to the signs. And I hope that they will learn that to be a godly woman doesn't mean that you are not going to go through things."