Against All Odds

An SD Couple Triumphs Over Grave Matters of the Heart

Written by: Ashley Lee
Heart disease. It’s the single largest killer of women in the world, taking more lives each year than all forms of cancer combined — including breast cancer. Leslie Giesemann knows this grim reality well. She was diagnosed with heart disease and underwent surgery at only age 24. Against all odds, she is not only alive, but also a trauma care surgeon, a wife to husband Michael Giesemann and a mother. In partnership with the American Heart Association and the Go Red for Women movement this month, 944 shares her touching story in celebration of our Wedding Issue.

944: How did you know you had heart disease?
LESLIE GIESEMANN: I had just finished learning about the heart in medical school. I got up one morning with crushing chest pain. The doctor said it was probably just indigestion! I had to convince him for 45 minutes to finally do electrocardiography — my arteries were occluded and I later had bypass surgery.

944: Meeting Leslie years after the surgery, how did you react to her medical history?
MICHAEL GIESEMANN: I gained a new respect for her. I’ll never know it to the extent that she’s lived it, and I’ll never grow tired of hearing the story. She’s now talking to other young adults. One high school girl who has [heart disease] was asking her mom, “Will I be able to get married and have kids?” And I’m thinking, “Yes!”

944: How did having your surgery at a young age affect you and your relationships?
LG: I thought that as a young woman, this sucks to have this huge scar. But after surgery, this old man who had cardiac surgery told me, “Don’t worry; any man who loves you will love your scar.” It’s a big part of you that you have to share early on with someone, and my husband never made a big deal out of it — it’s refreshing to find someone who really loves you for you.

944: Did you ever have doubts about starting a family together?
MG: Our cardiologist seemed so nervous that Leslie had open heart surgery and was now pregnant. One of the first things he said left both our mouths gaping: “Have you discussed termination?” We didn’t think that was a necessary option, and now we have our son, Benjamin.

944: How can couples help each other with health issues?
LG: Michael listens to me. I’ve heard stories where women have chest pains and men say, “You’re just complaining, you’re fine.” From a woman’s perspective, if your significant other listens and respects your feelings with encouragement and belief — whether emotional or regarding health — that’s a huge thing. That’s the reason I got involved in the Go Red campaign, because of the reaction I first got. People look at someone and they’re thinking, “You don’t look like you have heart disease, so why should I give you credit for what you’re telling me?” We women are always being told that we’re being frivolous, we’re not showing classic symptoms, we’re just complaining. And I could have died, but I didn’t.
MG: Respect it and believe it — she’s gonna know how she feels. Be supportive. Find the bond between you and your wife and don’t discount it just because she has a heart disease. I was an avid hiker and mountain climber — that’s not something Leslie can do, but she loves the outdoors for photography. We both respect nature in different ways, with different intensities. I never think of anything as sacrificing for her — I wouldn’t have married her if I didn’t want to be doing what I’m doing. Just being able to spend some time with her is fine, so still encourage the interests you share. Still participate in life.

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02.04.11 | 06:20pm
Holly Green
Leslie- you are truly an inspiration! Thank you for sharing your story!

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