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Mother, daughter share heart condition

By Amy DeMelia
The Sun Chronicle / June 16, 2012
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NORTH ATTLEBOROUGH, Mass.—When Melissa Lawes stepped into Lake Winnipesaukee for a quick swim with her father when she was 15, she had no idea how those few minutes would change her life.

While they were swimming back to shore, Melissa's heart stopped beating from what the family would eventually learn was an inherited cardiac arrhythmia.

"My dad turned around and saw that my eyes had rolled back into my head. He basically shook me so hard that my heart started back up," she said.

Melissa, now 24, had always been active -- as a dancer for almost her whole life and as a high school field hockey player. So, she initially urged her family to brush off the incident as a fluke.

But, following the advice of an aunt, who was a cardiac nurse, Melissa eventually headed to a cardiologist for months of testing, which included having to wear a heart monitor for 48 hours.

After an EKG, she learned she had a cardiac arrhythmia called Long QT.

There are several types of that arrhythmia, some more serious than others. Initially, Melissa's was thought to be the least serious type, meaning the degree of danger was low enough that she needed to take beta blockers and stop participating in contact sports.

Nonetheless, Melissa's mother, Laurie Lawes, 56, kept pursuing the matter, and eventually Melissa was referred to another doctor at the Mayo Clinic who was conducting a study of a genetic link to the disease.

That physician diagnosed Melissa with a more dangerous type of Long QT, which was inherited from her mother.

"She had a 50-50 shot of passing it on, and I got the lucky straw," Melissa said. "They told me I needed a defibrillator, and I said `You're crazy. Put me on a plane so I can go home.'"

Melissa's parents discussed the possibility of forcing their daughter to have the surgery, but ultimately decided to let her come to terms with it on her own.

She did by her senior year in high school.

Melissa said she grew tired of the anxiety that went along with the diagnosis and the need to teach all of her friends how to use the portable defibrillator she carried with her everywhere.

"I struggled with it," Melissa said. "I decided to do it because it gave me some confidentiality back. I don't have to tell everyone now. I can decide whether I want to tell someone or not."

In 2005, during Melissa's senior year in high school, she was implanted with her first defibrillator. Her mother also had the surgery that same year.

"I had symptoms, like when I took certain medications my heart would start racing, but I just thought it was an anxiety attack," Laurie said.

Initially, it all went well.

Neither has ever had their defibrillator active to restart their hearts, which Melissa said, "I've heard it's like being kicked in the chest by a horse. I hope it never happens."

However, they soon received a letter from the company that manufactured the medical device that leads on their defibrillators were defective and could crack at any time.

In fact, that happened to Laurie's defibrillator.

Mother and daughter were sitting on Melissa's bed when they heard a strange noise. Laurie got up to leave the room and Melissa realized the noise went with her: It was an alarm indicating the leads on her defibrillator had failed, requiring emergency surgery to replace them.

Melissa wanted her leads replaced, but was not thrilled that doctors planned to leave the old leads in her heart, as well.

Laurie conducted a little research and found Dr. Larry Epstein at Brigham and Woman's Hospital in Boston, who agreed to remove the old leads.

In December 2010, Laurie had a new defibrillator implanted and Melissa had hers replaced in January 2011.

Laurie said finding the right doctors to help with issues is key.

She urged anyone who experiences a loss of consciousness to take the matter seriously and see a cardiologist.

Both Melissa and Laurie said they feel better than ever and are conquering things they were afraid to tackle in the past. Laurie went zip lining in Alaska to conquer her fear of heights and Melissa recently began participating in triathlons to help get over her fear of swimming.

"I can do anything I want to do," Melissa said.

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