Heart attack survivor praises exercise as life-changing

An area grandmother whose 7-year-old granddaughter saved her life with a 911 call is now being honored as a heart health survivor.

Donna Bryan’s granddaughter knew to call 911 when her grandma couldn’t breathe in January. It turned out her lungs were full of fluid.

But before that in the summer, Bryan had suffered a heart attack, which actually set into motion events that ultimately also helped save her life last month.

Bryan knows her granddaughter is something special.

“I call my little granddaughter my angel,” she said.

But she has a few others looking out for her, as well.

“They are angels in a different way, because without them I wouldn’t be here today,” Bryan said.

At the gym inside Mayo Clinic Health System’s cardiac rehabilitation center in La Crosse, Bryan works out several times a week, and her angels take the form of physical therapists.

“It’s really fulfilling to see people doing that well and feeling that well,” exercise physiologist Rachel Decker said.

Ironically, it took a heart attack last summer to get Bryan as healthy as she is.

“It felt like a spear went through my chest,” she said.

Medical staff at Mayo Clinic Health System saved her life.

“They said a half hour more, and I wouldn’t have made it,” Bryan said.

However after the attack, she told pulmonary physician Dr. Daniel Deetz, who she’s seen for 15 years for her sleep apnea, that she was afraid to exercise.

“I said, ‘I’m afraid I’m gonna hurt my heart and have another heart attack,'” Bryan said.”

“(Exercise) actually becomes more important for those people suffering from cardiac or pulmonary disease,” Deetz said.

He explained to Bryan how exercise would strengthen her heart, which alleviated her fear and lit a fire.

“That’s when they say they saw me turn around and start kicking butt,” Bryan said.

“I would like all my patients to exercise like Donna does,” Deetz said.

Physiologists, including Decker, watched Bryan get stronger and stronger.

“It has been a pretty significant transformation,” Decker said.

“I always figure every little step is one more to making my heart better,” Bryan said.

All those steps added up. Without them, doctors told Bryan her heart likely wouldn’t have made it through January’s episode.

So she thanks all her angels, and has plenty of motivation to keep moving forward.

“If I hadn’t been here and done that, I wouldn’t be here today,” she said. “I’m gonna be exercising. I’ve got too much to live for.”

Bryan said she didn’t exercise before, but now, she loves it.

She has also written several books, and has eight grandkids and three great-grandkids.

Bryan will be honored at Friday’s Celebrating Her Heart Health luncheon in La Crosse.