Almaria Miller, Open Heart Surgery

Almaria Miller was working full time as a speech therapist with Kalamazoo Public Schools and raising four active young teenagers. Who had time to exercise? “I was active – my job requires activity,” said Miller, a 56-year-old Oshtemo Township resident. “But I never exercised.”

“I’ve always had a fairly small frame and ate whatever I wanted. I didn’t read the food labels, watch the fat content of the food or pay any attention to my cholesterol – And I felt fine!”

Fine, that is, until spring 2007 when she became aware of warning signs that trouble was brewing. “I had shortness of breath,” said Miller, a native of Winter Haven, Florida. “I’d walk to the parking lot from my school office and need to sit for a couple of minutes. Climbing a flight of stairs would make me winded. I started feeling tired a lot and even felt dizzy a couple of times.”

Miller decided to visit a physician who ordered a stress test at Borgess Medical Center. “I set it up for spring break,” she said. “On April 4, I left the house early and said good-bye to my boys and went for the test.”

“At Borgess, I got on the treadmill and a minute and a half later the nurse asked me if I was feeling anything. I said, yes, and she said, ‘You’re done.’ She told me that if I was her sister she’d call a cardiologist right now.” She did.

Miller was taken directly to the Borgess Trauma and Emergency Center. Her husband Johnny, a retired research pharmacist at the former Upjohn Co., (now Pfizer) arrived later. A cardiologist ordered an angiogram, an X-ray examination of Miller’s heart. It showed blockages in seven heart arteries.

Something needed to be done quickly.

Barely 24 hours later, Dr. Michael Khaghany performed a six-bypass operation on Miller and she began the slow process of regaining her strength. “The people in cardiac rehab got me right up and going,” Miller said. “They don’t give you any time to feel sorry for yourself. Their goal is to get you back to normal as soon as you can.”

Miller praised not just the Borgess cardiac rehabilitation staff, but the nurses and doctors on the hospital floor where she started her recovery after surgery. “I thought they were great,” she said. “Everybody is friendly and helpful. They had a nutritionist talk to me about diet and whatnot and set me up to have a visiting nurse once I was discharged.”

“They taught me how to be aware of my body. I was so used to ignoring it before. Maybe if I was more aware, I would have noticed the symptoms earlier.”

These days, Miller feels as good as ever and has taken up healthier habits. She reads food labels, eats more chicken, turkey and salads. She also drinks skim milk, replaces eggs with Egg Beaters and eats blood-cholesterol-lowering oatmeal several times a week.

“I lift weights and I exercise on a regular basis. In nicer weather I love long walks,” she said. “Before, it was stressful to walk to the mailbox, but now I walk several blocks without any problems.”

Both Johnny and Almaria graduated from Florida A & M University. They were married in 1974 and have raised four sons, Jared, 20, Derek, 19, Travis, 17, and Ellis, 16.

An associate minister at Galilee Baptist Church, Miller said that both her natural and her church family have been a strong source of support. “Prayer has under-girded me. And my kids turned into food police,” she said. “If I start to eat a little extra they all yell, don’t do it, mom! They keep me in line.”

“I feel good, I really do. In fact, I feel great! It is a blessing to live in a community where we have such capable doctors and hospital staff so close. I’m very thankful for that.”

“Now I want to engage other women to pay attention to their bodies. Moms are not allowed to be sick because they have to take care of everybody else. I want them to know that if they don’t take care of themselves, they can’t take care of others. I’m not advocating selfishness; but stay strong – for yourself as well as the ones you love.”