June 10, 2006 © The New Mexican
Eldorado author coaches open-heart patients
through surgery, recovery
By Diana Heil
The New Mexican
Maggie Lichtenberg was born with a heart problem called Epstein’s
Anomaly. It didn’t cause her any trouble until she was 53 and in
the thick of a high-powered, East Coast publishing career.
Medication quickly eased her irregular heartbeat, and she had long stretches
of carefree living.
Eventually, she moved to Santa Fe , reconfigured her career and enjoyed
picnics at 11,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristo mountains with the man
she loved. Her new life seemed ideal, and then the symptoms returned.
Lichtenberg wasn’t worried, even though Santa Fe cardiologist Dr.
Grant La Farge warned her one day she might need to repair the valve
that was making the right atrium of her heart irritable.
At the New Mexico Heart Institute in Albuquerque , in 1997, she underwent
a procedure called radio-frequency ablation, which restored a normal
rhythm to her heart. No medication needed. Again, she had a few more
years of carefree living
By 1999, a new kind of disturbance began. This time, when
her heart went off kilter, her throat constricted. She was
pain-stricken and immobilized for hours, until the symptoms
subsided. Attacks often came at night and she couldn’t
sleep. Lichtenberg worried the throat problem could stall
her speaking engagements. She had to seek help.
The medication and treatments that worked before weren’t effective
now, and her condition worsened. Doctors said she had a leaky valve in
her heart that needed to be repaired. While pondering the prospect of
open-heart surgery, Lichtenberg became meticulous about gathering all
the facts. In 2003, by the time she packed her bags in 2003 for the Mayo
Clinic, she felt she knew full well what she was in for.
Please see HEART, Page D-2
Maggie Lichtenberg’s book,The
Open Heart Companion,is now distributed
to each open-heart surgery patient at St.
Vincent Regional Medical Center .
She also coaches patients from her home in Eldorado.
Photos by Susánica Tam/The New Mexican
While pondering the prospect of open-heart surgery,
Lichtenberg became meticulous about gathering all the facts,
but she failed to prepare herself for the recovery process.
Heart: Author is now “an open-heart coach”
Continued from Page D-1
She had quizzed the surgeon on just how he would open her rib cage and
what kind of scar he would leave behind. She had gone down the checklist
of things to do to help make the operation go smoothly, and she had listened
to a pre-surgery relaxation tape. And since her cardiologist had told
her insurance company that only the Mayo Clinic surgeon could perform
the operation, she had coverage for the out-of-state procedure.
It wasn’t until she was back at home that Lichtenberg first realized
she had overlooked an important part of the picture.
She hadn’t prepared herself for the next phase: the difficult four-to-eight
week transition from open-heart surgery to full recovery.
“Resting late one afternoon a few weeks after my homecoming, droopy and
irritable about the realities of open-heart convalescence, I began to itemize
in my mind the things I might have investigated in advance,” she wrote
in The Open Heart Companion: Preparation and Guidance for Open-Heart Surgery
Recovery. “True, I had established some excellent links to professional
specialists. But I hadn’t asked questions about recovery. That weary day
I acknowledged how little I had known about the challenges now facing me. Had
I been told to be on the lookout for conditions like serious constipation, excessive
fatigue, and symptoms of depression, I would have acted sooner to get advice
about nipping those rascals in the bud.” Lichtenberg is dedicated to helping
others avoid the same mistake.
Not only did she self-publish a book on the subject, she also set up
a free newsletter and telephone support group for recovering heart patients,
all through the Internet.
“People don’t realize that being in a community can be so nourishing,” Lichtenberg
On June 17, at Borders Books, Lichtenberg will speak at a book signing
celebration. She has become an “open-heart coach” with a
mission to help others move quickly from denial to action. Cardiovascular
disease is, after all, the leading killer of American men and women.
In Santa Fe, St. Vincent Regional Medical Center — where she went
for cardiac rehabilitation — now includes her 192-page handbook
in its packet for heart-surgery patients.
“We give out her book to all of our patients,” said Francie Handler,
a nurse and case manager for open-heart surgery patients.
“Everything she has in there is right on.” Because many patients
skip the pre-operation clinic, they often don’t get the book until they
“They’re usually really grateful to get it,” Handler said.
Because some patients live in rural areas of New Mexico, without telephone
service or electricity, Handler inquires about their home situation when
she talks to patients about pre-paring for recovery.
Maggie Lichtenberg will discuss her book,
The Open Heart Companion: Preparation and Guidance for Open-Heart Surgery Recovery,
at 2 p.m. June 17, 2006 at Borders Books, 500 Montezuma Ave.
For information, visit www.openheartcoach.com
In one case, the hospital helped a patient who had no insurance
coverage get rent assistance, medication, oxygen and a home
“Everything they need we can get, practically,” Handler said. “We
try to get all of this started early on.” For Lichtenberg, the lack of
a comfortable home setting wasn’t an issue. What she needed was something
far less tangible: patience. And she wound up in the emergency room because of
The doctors warned her that she might have an irregular heart rhythm
for at least three months after surgery. Instead of finding solace in
that, she decided to take charge when she became annoyed by a fluttering
heart beat only five weeks after surgery.
Without consulting a doctor, she took a large dose of the anti-arrhythmic
medication, followed by a second large dose an hour later, reasoning
that it was the right thing to do because it had worked before the surgery.
She overdosed and her heart-beat fell to a dangerously low level. “I
felt the energy draining out of me fast, as if I were dying...,” she
The episode was handled in the nick of time, and Lichtenberg took the
That day, she had forgotten to quiet her mind and ask for guidance from
deep within before taking the dangerous doses of medication.
“I’ve come to believe more than ever that we need to trust our gut
assessment on any important matter,” she wrote.
These days, Lichtenberg can clearly see what happened during her recovery
“Every day, you need to wake up and remind yourself to be patient,” she
If she had to go through the ordeal again, Lichtenberg said she would
be more “real” with herself. She wouldn’t wait years
to accept the truth that some-thing serious was going on with her heart.
After surgery, Lichtenberg would surround herself with affirmations written
on colorful index cards: “I celebrate my life and my heart’s
restored health,” or “Soon I will be back hiking the beautiful
Santa Fe trails.” To stave off depression, she would stay in touch
with more friends and be grateful for what she had.
She would not forego her morning spiritual practice the way she did before. “I
would not wait to be shocked, (and wonder) where is God in all of this?” she
In addition to her book, Lichtenberg set up a free newsletter and phone
support group for recovering heart patients.