Fort Worth, Texas,
10:12 AM

Coming Home: Nurse Returns to Cook Children’s for Open-Heart Surgery

Amber Bartek

“I just felt like I was coming home and I had full confidence everything was going to be okay,” Amber Bartek said with tears in her eyes.

Home is many things for different people, but where most people feel ‘at home’ usually comes with a sense of safety, security, and love. That is how Amber feels about Cook Children’s Medical Center. Although she lives more than 500 miles away from the castle with the blue peaks in downtown Fort Worth, she has a story that began (and ended) right where she felt the safest.

In early June, Amber, 40, found herself on the road traveling from Kansas to Texas. However, this was no vacation. She was headed to have open-heart surgery at Cook Children’s. You may be thinking, “But that’s a children’s hospital, how is that possible?”

Amber worked as a nurse at Cook Children’s from 2006-2014 on several different units at the medical center. In 2014, she and her family moved to Kansas, but she still had ties to Cook Children’s. Amber’s sister, Kathleen Powderly, M.D., is a pediatrician at the Cook Children’s Magnolia Clinic.

In the fall of 2020, Amber went for a routine checkup with her primary care physician and after running some tests, she learned she had a heart murmur. After getting an abnormal echo test and being referred to a cardiologist, she learned she had a subaortic membrane that had gone undetected.

“The symptoms I'd been having, I attributed it to turning 40,” Amber said. “I had just started exercising, so I thought some of those symptoms were just part of getting older.”

Knowing she would need surgery, Amber began her search for a cardiologist in Kansas. After that search led to a dead end, she called her sister in Fort Worth for help.

“I was talking to my sister, Kathleen, and she told me that there was a congenital heart program for adults at Cook Children’s, which I didn't know,” Amber explained. “I had been trying to find a surgeon in Kansas and didn’t have any luck.”

Amber’s sister connected her with Scott Pilgrim, M.D., medical director of adult congenital heart disease at Cook Children’s, who performed an evaluation and determined she was a candidate for surgery.

“Amber’s case was a little unique in that she was not diagnosed with her heart problem until later in life,” Dr. Pilgrim said. “Her diagnosis was a subaortic membrane or tissue that had developed underneath the level of the aortic valve. While not necessarily truly congenital, it is something that we do see in children as little as infants, all the way up into adulthood. Our surgeons are very versed in taking care of these types of problems. Her case fell right within our purview and right within our expertise of being able to handle that problem.”

Phillip Burch, M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon at Cook Children’s, performed Amber’s surgery. On that early Monday morning in June, he met Amber in her hospital room and explained what would take place detail by detail.

“It feels just like coming home,” Amber said. “I loved it when I worked here. I thought it was one of the best places to work. I have always had every confidence in my fellow nurses and the physicians, and I honestly feel more at ease being here than even at the adult hospital back home. I know how skilled and compassionate they are here and I am very confident and happy to be back.”

There was not a dry eye in Amber’s hospital room as the medical staff prepared to wheel her back to the operating room. Amber embraced her husband tightly, as the nerves of being minutes away from open-heart surgery began to get the best of her. Next, she would embrace her sister. As her sister handed her a rosary, they prayed.

“Can I take this into surgery with me?” Amber asked. The medical staff agreed and moments later Amber was on her way. Her family was only able to walk so far before the waiting game began.

“Kathleen let me take her rosary because I’d left mine in my bag,” Amber said. “Faith has always been important to me. We have lost our parents and a sister, and I knew they were there with me. Kathleen even had holy oil with her that she put on me right before surgery and it was automatically calming to me.”

Amber’s successful surgery was followed by a short Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (ICU) stay before she was released to recover at her sister’s home. She spent four weeks healing, but the process was hard on her physically and mentally.

“I have my good days and bad days,” Amber said. “With open-heart surgery, Dr. Pilgrim explained there would be a great occurrence of depression and emotional instability, and I’ve noticed that. My emotions go up and down, one moment I'll be fine and all of a sudden I'll be crying. It's been a lot to take in and I find myself frustrated with not being able to do what I’m used to right now.”

She says while it was nice to be able to visit her sister and spend time with the family in Texas, it was hard to be away from her five children. She spent a lot of time on FaceTime with her children and played games with them on her phone to make the time pass by.

Amber was able to reunite with her family just in time for the Fourth of July, but being back home came with a hard adjustment period.

“It feels so good to be home,” Amber said. “I am still taking it easy. I’ve been using my arms more to push myself up and I even tried driving recently. I have been trying to use those muscles that I haven’t used in a while, I’ve just been sore.”

She says the best part of being back in the comfort of her own home was reuniting with her husband and children. The younger children were fearful and careful not to ‘hurt’ their mommy as they knew she was still recovering.

For now, Amber will continue to take it slow and regain her strength before she gets back to taking care of patients and working long nursing shifts. She says she needs more strength and endurance before she can be on her feet for a long time.

Amber and her sister, Dr. Powderly, say that while Amber gains her strength to get back to work, they will always reflect on the strong team of employees at Cook Children’s that made what could have been a scary experience, seamless.

“From the time that we walked in for registration that morning to when we walked out about nine days later, I can't even tell you the level of exceptional care that we received,” Dr. Powderly explained. “When you work at a place, you have a sense that what you provide is good, compassionate care. When you are then a patient or a family and you see it from the other side, it is just a total validation of why I’ve spent my whole career at Cook Children’s.”

Amber says she agrees with that sentiment, from being an employee to becoming a patient, she is thankful her story started and ended at home.

“Thank you would never be enough,” Amber said. “Every single person was amazing. They are responsible for giving me my life back, and there is no amount of gratitude in the world that I think would cover it. I am very blessed to have been a patient and been a part of an amazing team.”

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