Claire Bridges’ laugh is contagious and is always bright, happy, and even silly. But, photographs can’t quite convey her bright, optimistic aura. Claire Bridges, who is 21 years old, has a mature spirit that astounds both those who love her and the medical professionals who had to operate on her heart and amputate both of her legs to preserve her life.
“I tell all my patients that’s half the battle,” said Dr. Dean Arnaoutakis, a vascular surgeon at the University of South Florida Health in Tampa who amputated Bridges’ legs as a result of problems from Covid-19.
Bridges’ heart was operated on by Dr. Ismail El-Hamamsy, a professor of cardiovascular surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “Most people would be hopeless and feel like life had betrayed them,” he added.
“Yet she admitted to me that she believed herself to be the luckiest person on earth. My entire life is still in front of me. I can look forward to having children, a future, and many other things.
He remarked, “There was never a moment when I gazed into her eyes where I didn’t feel her positivity was pure and genuine. “Claire’s story is one of the most amazing positivity and resiliency.
My body just literally wouldn’t give up
Bridges, a 20-year-old model in St. Petersburg, Florida, has her own apartment, a large group of friends, and a part-time job serving drinks in January 2022. Her mother, Kimberly Smith, described her as “exceptionally healthy” and a vegan.
Nobody expected her to end up in the hospital when she contracted Covid-19 that month. She received the necessary shots and boosters.
However, Bridges was born with aortic valve stenosis, a mutation of the valve of the aorta, the major artery of the heart, which is a common genetic heart condition. Those with aortic valve stenosis frequently have just two cusps, or flaps, instead of the normal three that allows oxygen-rich blood to pass from the heart into the aorta and to the rest of the body. The illness makes the heart work exceedingly hard to complete its job, which frequently results in shortness of breath, lightheadedness, and exhaustion.
Claire Bridges told CNN, “I could exercise and whatnot, but I could never play sports. “I was unable to run. I couldn’t push myself too hard.
We could really tell she started to learn her boundaries as she grew older because she would stop when she ran out of breath, according to her mother.
Covid-19 impacted Bridges hard, whether it was her heart or some other unidentified factor. Her health rapidly got out of hand.
Severe exhaustion and chilly chills made it increasingly difficult to try to eat or drink anything, she recounted. Then, one day, my mother discovered me unconscious and took me to the hospital. Three times that evening, I passed out.
Bridges were put on a ventilator, a dialysis regimen, and an external heart pump. She started to go crazy.
She added, “I was thinking that everyone was attempting to murder me, but I was holding on,” and she later saw her late grandfather and a bright light.
He was fishing while perched on a seat, she said, and he was sporting a baseball cap. “I then looked out the window and saw my parents. I’m not sure if I genuinely said “I can’t leave them like this” or if that was just a part of my illusion. And my body simply refused to give up.
When physicians battled to save Bridges’ life, her spirit continued to fight. Systems started to malfunction, severely weakening her already weakened heart. Her legs’ tissues started to deteriorate because her extremities weren’t getting enough blood.
Her legs were saved as much as possible by the surgeons. They removed one ankle after first reducing edema by opening tissue in both legs. Ultimately, there was no other option but to cut off both legs.
To deliver the bad news, doctors gathered around her bed.
“I can still picture myself turning to face them and thanking them for saving my life. And may I please have bionic legs? Added Bridges.
Everyone was astonished by how nicely her daughter was handling the situation, according to Smith. But everyone in my family understood that Claire would be the one to handle this catastrophe the best if it happened to any of us. Claire is upbeat and optimistic in that way.
Checking off her bucket list
Bridges’ battle to regain her health continued even after she lost her legs. She could have passed away from “so many things” while she was in the hospital, according to Smith.
Bridges, who was underweight, was given a feeding tube. Smith claimed that she “almost bled out” after vomiting, rupturing a portion of her small intestine. Due to her frail heart, physicians had to perform an urgent transfusion in order to save her.
She nearly passed out while receiving the emergency transfusion because the blood had to be pumped in so quickly, according to Smith. She bled again the following day, but this time, it was discovered quickly.
Refeeding syndrome is a disorder wherein a starving body’s electrolytes, minerals, and other critical fluids are thrown out of balance when food is reintroduced, causing seizures, muscle and heart weakness, and in severe cases, a coma was developed by Bridges. It can cause organ failure and death if not treated quickly.
Another setback was that she started losing her hair, probably as a result of inadequate nourishment. Her friends and family flocked to her aid.
I was aware that getting rid of all of my hair was the only way to stop me from crying each time I pulled clumps out of my head, Bridges said. When I mentioned to my brother Drew that I was considering shaving my head. He answered, “I’ll shave mine with you,” without skipping a beat.
Later, Bridges recalled with a smile, “everyone started telling me they would also shave their hair. That was actually a very sweet, enjoyable, and liberating experience. Moreover, I got to check shaving my head off my bucket list, which was something I’ve always wanted to do.
Bridges attribute her positive outlook throughout the process to her friends, family, and neighbors who organized fundraisers or reached out on social media.
I am so fortunate to have such a wonderful family, friends, and neighbors who are like family, she remarked. “People were reaching out to me who I didn’t know and with whom I hadn’t spoken since elementary or high school.
“Sure, I gave myself permission to mourn, and there were terrible times. Yet in all honesty, I felt so loved by my friends and family that I never had the chance to dwell on how I looked before or how my legs looked.
An unusual heart operation
Bridges faced an additional challenge because her already fragile heart had suffered significant damage as a result of her lengthy sickness. Claire Bridges urgently required a replacement aortic valve.
Her mother added, “We always knew Claire would need open-heart surgery at some point. The older you are, the bigger you are, and the less likely it is that you will require another operation soon after, thus doctors wanted her to be as old as possible before they replaced the valve.
Her doctors contacted Mount Sinai’s El-Hamamsy, who specializes in the Ross surgery, a trickier type of aortic valve replacement.
According to El-Hamamsy, “the Ross is a fantastic answer for many young people like Claire,” and “anyone who has a projected life expectancy of 20 years or more is undoubtedly a viable candidate for the Ross.”
El-Hamamsy explains that the Ross treatment utilizes the patient’s own pulmonary valve, which is similar in structure to a normal aortic valve with three cusps. This approach differs from traditional surgeries, which typically involve replacing the faulty aortic valve with a mechanical or cadaver valve. According to El-Hamamsy, using the patient’s own pulmonary valve can offer several advantages over conventional procedures, including a lower risk of rejection and improved long-term outcomes. El-Hamamsy suggests that the Ross treatment may be a better option for some patients seeking valve replacement surgery.
The surgeon explained, “It’s a live valve and like any living thing, it’s adaptive. It accomplishes all the extremely complex tasks that a typical aortic valve would complete and acts as a brand-new aortic valve.
Following that, a donor pulmonary valve from a cadaver is implanted, “where it counts a little less because the pressures and forces on the pulmonary side are significantly lower,” he said.
El-Hamamsy suggests that a new aortic valve, made from the patient’s own body, can eliminate the need for lifelong use of blood thinners. The use of this valve can also reduce the risk of serious bleeding, clotting, and stroke in the patient. According to El-Hamamsy, this approach offers significant benefits over traditional valve replacement methods. Also, patients are less likely to require additional procedures because the replacement valve is stronger than the dysfunctional valve it replaces.
According to him, the Ross procedure is the sole method for replacing the aortic valve that enables patients to have a normal lifespan and a completely normal quality of life. He suggests that other replacement methods may not be as effective in providing a comparable quality of life. Furthermore, he believes that patients who undergo the Ross procedure do not need to make any significant changes to their lifestyle or activities. Overall, he asserts that the Ross procedure is the optimal choice for patients seeking aortic valve replacement. Additionally, he claims that this procedure has a good level of durability. According to him, patients undergoing the Ross procedure do not need to make any significant lifestyle changes or adjustments. Overall, he believes that the Ross procedure is the best choice for patients needing an aortic valve replacement.
Putting in a mechanical or tissue valve, which is “among of the easiest operations that we as cardiac surgeons will ever undertake,” is more technically difficult than the Ross technique, according to El-Hamamsy.
Currently, only select few surgical centers offer the procedure as it requires a high level of technical skill.
He continued, “It takes committed surgeons who want to devote their practices to the Ross surgery and who have the technical abilities and expertise to do that. The surgery must be conducted by a Ross-certified institution. It is important for patients to be informed of this requirement.
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Claire made that choice
During their initial video call in the spring, El-Hamamsy expressed uncertainty about his ability to perform the surgery. El-Hamamsy wasn’t certain about his capacity to undertake the surgery during their first video conference in the spring. Bridges had just 127 pounds before being ill, and she dropped approximately 70 pounds while in the hospital.
She was extremely malnourished. El-Hamamsy stated, “There was no way I could take her into the operating room the way she was. I had no idea Claire Bridges would recover so rapidly and maintain her extraordinarily upbeat outlook.
Bridges battled her way back to health over many months, slowly. She started learning how to walk with lower prosthetic limbs in rehab. Claire Bridges continued one of her favorite activities, rock climbing, as she grew stronger.
The vascular surgeon, Arnaoutakis, remarked, “After six months, I could not recognize her. She had gained weight, her skin had completely healed over at the amputation sites. Claire Bridges was a completely different-appearing individual from the hungry and debilitated girl I had met in the hospital.
In December, the heart operation was completed successfully. Bridges is currently undergoing cardiac rehabilitation and eagerly anticipates receiving prosthetic blades, which are J-shaped, carbon-fiber lower limbs that will enable her to run on a track for the first time ever.
She has also resumed modeling, eager to demonstrate to the world how well she has endured.
Somebody does not take El-Hamamsy aback. “ It will be such an honor to look after you because you’ve inspired me. I told her the moment I first saw her on Zoom. I’ve never encountered a young person this mature or with such a positive attitude toward life.
When I experience difficulties in life or anything else, I occasionally think of Claire. It serves as a reminder that positivity and happiness are choices. Claire decided to do that.