Bianca Spencer: MTSU Alum, Professor, and Heart Patient
By: Mary-Beth Mangrum
February 14, 2022
A Father's Day spent at a children’s hospital, regular and frequent check-ups, and then invasive heart surgery at 11 months old. These are all events that Bianca Spencer, MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University) alum and professor, went through within the first year of her life – but it has not held her back in the slightest.
Spencer, now 27, holds a master's degree in Media and Entertainment as well as her bachelor’s in Broadcast Journalism. While she spends most of the year teaching students about radio journalism and digital media, she sometimes spends the month of February, which is American Heart Month, helping to educate those around her.
"I am a heart patient.” said Spencer. “I was born with two holes in my heart, and I had surgery at 11 months old.” The surgery treated two specific conditions: an atrial septal defect (ASD), and a ventricular defect (VSD), both of which are considered congenital heart defects.
"My atrium septum in my heart had a hole... and my ventricular wall had a hole as well," said Spencer. "My blood flow was interrupted, which interrupted my breathing as an infant and made it hard for me to breathe, made it hard for me to eat."
Spencer’s condition was the first of its kind within her family tree; heart issues were not hereditary. These unfamiliar complications, especially when happening at such an early age, left her family shaken within the first few months of her life. Spencer believes that a lot of people do not understand the severity or innerworkings of cardiovascular issues such as heart defects, but that knowledge is important for both personal and familial health.
"Sometimes we're not aware that cardiac diseases can be a number one killer in the community and it's always great to be able to learn new things about keeping a healthy heart,” she said. "It's a really intense muscle -- it keeps everything flowing throughout your body."
After her surgery, Spencer recovered, but there was always the looming possibility of complications returning.
"I didn't have any other issues until I got into high school -- I had to wear a heart monitor for a while to record some pains in my chest." Yet nothing came of these mysterious pains, and a doctor later ruled them as complications from severe allergies. Spencer admits that this is commonplace for heart patients, as most illnesses affect them far worse than the average person. She references her first encounter with influenza, saying she “ended up being down for a week.”
“I passed out in my kitchen, I was severely dehydrated, and I had to go to the ER,” she said, as if the experience was normal – and it is to her.
Because Spencer’s surgery happened while she was so young, she experiences no issues with answering questions anyone might have about her status as a heart patient. One thing that was a prevalent topic in most conversations while growing up was the only visible tell of her condition: her surgical scar, which spans from chest to navel. Her mother was the one who helped her in educating her classmates.
"[My mom] taught me how to explain my scar, so ever since I was probably three or four and people would ask me why I had a scar, I would be like, well, I had heart surgery at 11 months old and I had two holes in my heart, and they had to get closed up -- and this is my zipper." Spencer commemorated this story by getting a zipper tattooed beneath her scar; a tattoo which is now her mother’s favorite. According to data collected by the CDC in 2017, heart disease is the leading cause of death in Tennessee. Spencer believes that such a high death toll could be alleviated by citizens taking a more proactive approach towards their health, and most importantly, listening to their bodies.
"You can have a heart attack like that," Spencer said while snapping her fingers. "It's a silent killer. That little tinge in your chest might need to get looked at if it's repetitive."
She also advises people to stay aware of their emotional health. "Stress is also a silent killer that plays a factor into your heart -- there are cardiologists who will require you to do a stress test because that can actually impact how strong your heart is."
Finally, she provides Tennesseans with a few tips for the month of February. "Be aware, learn something this month, and implement something new to help your body."