Erika Laszlo is a people magnet for many reasons. Some enjoy her bright outlook on life — a breath of fresh air as she enters a room. Others are drawn to her caring persona. And those who know her very well are in awe of what she’s accomplished in her life, in particular the hurdles she’s overcome, as well as her quiet bravery in the face of significant heart health challenges.
Erika, a referring physician liaison at the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center, has been living with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator for 24 years. One of her goals is to help others understand that a healthy, normal life is possible after having an ICD implanted.
Erika shares her story of bravery, acceptance and living a full, happy life.
“I was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a congenital heart defect that required bypass surgery when I was two years old, followed by open-heart surgery to correct the defect at age five. I became one of the first babies to survive both surgeries at the hospital where I was being treated.
After my open-heart surgery, my parents continued to take me for yearly follow-up appointments with my cardiologist. I felt healthy and had no restrictions on what I could do. Throughout grade school and high school, I played sports and was involved in extracurricular activities with no problems. For the most part, I was just like most other kids, enjoying a worry-free childhood.
At age 20, however, things changed. I was diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia (or sudden death syndrome), a condition that put me on an emotional roller coaster as I tried to come to grips with my newfound reality: The only thing that would likely save me was an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD). Consultations with a series of doctors — in Detroit, Philadelphia and London, Ontario — confirmed this reality, despite my determination to deny it. I can honestly say that I wanted to die rather than have an ICD implanted in me. A box with wires that would zap my heart? No way! It was a very emotional time for me and when the doctors in London told me I had no choice, I can honestly tell you — I lost it. My mom was with me through this trying time and she tried so hard to keep me from falling apart. My mother kept insisting that ‘God never gives us things we can’t handle.’ Though her mantra was meant to offer comfort, it only added to my increasing aggravation.
My lifesaving device
Despite the emotional and physical pain I have endured, I am here today because of my ICD. The device has saved my life 10 times during the last 24 years. Since it was implanted, I’ve been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, atrial tachycardia, atrial flutter, congestive heart failure and pulmonary hypertension. About 12 years ago, I had a prosthetic pulmonary valve implanted, and a few years later diagnosed with endocarditis, which is an infection within the prosthetic valve. This may sound like a lot, but I haven’t allowed any of it to slow me down.
I made a very important decision 15 years ago when I became a patient at the Frankel CVC Adult Congenital Heart Program. I needed a new team with a new perspective and I found it here with Dr. Cotts as my cardiologist and Dr. Chugh as my electrophysiologist. I know coming to U-M was the right decision and I’ve never looked back.
Advocating for healthcare
Almost five years ago I became a proud member of the U-M Patient Family Centered Care Advisory Board. My goal is to help patients and family members understand that they are their best advocates for healthcare. As a mother and wife, I owe it to myself and to my family to ask questions and challenge my healthcare providers when something is unclear or doesn’t seem quite right. When it’s time to make an important decision regarding health issues, patients and families need to gather information from all possible sources and to understand all the options in order to make informed health-related decisions.
Four years ago I landed my dream job and became the referring physician liaison for the Frankel CVC. I love the idea that whatever I can do to assist referring physicians and their staff — that in end their patients will benefit from my hard work.
More than anything, my healthcare experiences have taught me to be prepared for the unexpected and have helped me realize that what God gives us really does make us stronger (thanks, Mom!). My strength has made me a survivor and it has allowed to me enjoy the life I live today and to be grateful for every day that is given to me. I am blessed with a wonderful husband and two great kids. Because of my family and my experiences, I’m always ready to face whatever comes next in my life.”
The University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is the top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at umcvc.org.