Young teacher undergoes unexpected open-heart surgery

Recently engaged teacher Michelle Schaub, 26, scheduled an appointment for foot pain in November. Little did she know she’d be scheduling a potentially lifesaving surgery the very next month in December.

Schaub has a big heart, especially for her students, but working with preschoolers and kindergartners at Providence Academy in La Crosse is a high-energy job.

“I remember going to school, by 11 o’clock which is the time they leave, I was dead tired,” Schaub said.

Turns out, the same heart she loves her kiddos with could have killed her without her ever knowing there was a problem.

“Yeah, it was mind-boggling,” she said. “I’m only 26, what could be wrong?”

In November, Schaub went to the doctor with a swollen foot, but more concerning was her high blood pressure. It was 212/110, considered a hypertensive emergency.

“I was really worried,” coworker Susan Schaller said.

Family and coworkers convinced her to reschedule a follow-up appointment as soon as possible.

“My heart went to Michelle, and I said, ‘Can I come be with you; is anyone with you?'” Providence Academy headmistress Amy Strom said. “Because she expected none of any of that news.”

The appointment’s news came as a surprise to Schaub, as well as to doctors.

“This is one of those cases I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” said Dr. Mengyi Zha, second-year resident at Mayo Clinic Health System’s Family Health Clinic in La Crosse.

Zha said she barely had to use a stethoscope to detect something wrong with Schaub’s heart.

“I could basically just stand by her and hear the murmur,” she said. “It was surprising to me. I don’t think in my life I’ve ever heard a murmur this loud.”

A rushed echocardiogram detected congenital aortic coarctation, meaning Schaub’s aorta was pinched, limiting blood flow.

“I’ve been in practice 20 years, and this is the first time we’ve seen it as an adult,” Mayo cardiologist Michael Meyers said.

He explained aortic coarcations are usually diagnosed when people are children. In recent years, Schaub and doctors attributed her high blood pressure to her anxiety.

Meyers said the normal aorta for a 26-year-old woman is about the size of a quarter. Shaub’s was about the size of a pencil’s eraser head.

Schaub is now on the road to recovery from open heart surgery, which fixed the defect she was born with, at Mayo in Rochester in December.

“This could have ended differently,” Meyers said.

Had Schaub not been diagnosed and treated, exercise or a pregnancy could have killed her.

“Just having that thought in the back of my mind, it’s like thank goodness I did it now,” Schaub said.

In December, thoughts of open heart surgery filled Schaub’s mind. Now back to work in February, student-made heart Valentines complete her reality instead.

“To have her here today is great,” Schaller said

Schaub will be on blood pressure medication for the rest of her life, but otherwise she’ll live a normal life.

She said her birth defect explains why she was always tired and had headaches, and she now has so much more energy.

“I’m still in shock that I had open heart surgery, but it’s amazing how big of a turn it could be,” she said. “It’s so much better.”