A heart attack becomes an unwelcome source of poetic inspiration

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 Marylou Kelly Streznewski and her husband, Thomas. (Elana Gordon/WHYY)

Marylou Kelly Streznewski and her husband, Thomas. (Elana Gordon/WHYY)

Marylou Kelly Streznewski describes herself as a model of health. And for most of her life, she took it for granted.

But that changed on December 8, 2006, when, around midnight, she found herself in the bathroom, suddenly unable to breath.

“It’s a very weird feeling when you go to take a breath and there’s nothing there,” she recalls.

Streznewski was 73 at the time. She banged on the wall with what strength she had left, to catch her husband’s attention.

It was a heart attack.

But while the symptoms of her heart disease had been manifesting for some time – in her case, a recurrent flu, throat pain, and intense fatigue – Streznewski didn’t connect those dots until it was too late.

She had emergency surgery.

The culprit? A badly leaking mitral valve.

Streznewski spent eight days at the hospital, but she has since spent the last nine years on a continuous journey of healing.

“There’s no cure for heart disease,” she says. “It’s a condition you have, that you can manage. As my surgeon says, we can’t cure heart disease, but we can change the arc of survival, and the biggest thing in the first year is exercise, both mind and body. You have to keep active. That is a survival factor.”

Ultimately she learned, the doctors can repair you, but they can’t heal you.

“That’s your job,” she says.

Streznewski, who to this day is diligent about exercising regularly and incorporating other integrative medicine modalities into her daily routine, has also spent the last nine years searching for answers to what happened to her all the while documenting her own recovery process. Her hope is that her experience could save others from a similar fate.

Or a worse one…heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States.

Streznewski was surprised to learn, for example, that for women, heart disease symptoms may not involve the classic chest pain. Vomiting and back pain are other possible signs, but it can vary.

“And one of the big problems is as women, we’re always too busy taking care of everyone else, and we push the symptoms aside,” she said.

Turning to poetry and writing

Streznewski spent nearly three decades teaching high school english in Bucks County, but her main passion has always been writing poetry and prose.

She has three books of poetry and a nonfiction book about gifted grownups.

So it seemed only natural, her writer friends told her, to use this latest experience as inspiration for her next project.

“I don’t want to write about this!” she remembered thinking initially. 

In the six months after her heart attack, Streznewski could not put pen to paper.

“Trauma effects the language area of the brain,” she says.

But then she heard a poet friend speak about her own health care experience, describing it as a train wreck. And that word, train wreck, she recalled, triggered something in her brain. She began to write. And research. Several poems took shape.

Many of them focus on her experience during surgery, in the moments drifting in and out of consciousness. She then interspersed her own interpretations with medical records from the doctors and surgeons.

Streznewski has now compiled those poems and her other prose into a memoir called Heart Rending Heart Mending: Saved by medical science healed by ancient wisdom.

She cautions that it’s not intended as medical advice, but rather, one woman’s insight into what worked for her.

“I am not a medical authority,” she says. “I am a survivor who did her homework, who learned to heal herself.”

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