Her aorta tore while in Ireland. She turned her drama into a cabaret act.

Credit: Shana Pennington-Baird

When Shana Pennington-Baird signed up for a summer conference in Ireland to enrich her voice acting career, she was excited to tack on some family vacation time.

Her husband had always wanted to visit the country, and their daughter, then 8, was old enough to appreciate the sights.

A couple weeks before they left, Pennington-Baird experienced a tiny popping sensation in her chest while walking. That evening, she had what felt like heartburn up to her jaw.

She was fine the next day, but the burning sensation returned a couple times, then disappeared completely. Although she’d never had heartburn, the then-45-year-old thought maybe it was something that comes with age.

After two weeks touring Iceland, Scotland and Ireland, Pennington-Baird’s family returned to their home in Seattle, while she hit the road for a couple days before the start of the conference.

As a former touring musical theater performer, Pennington-Baird was comfortable with solo adventures. On her first day, she hiked 8 miles in Northern Ireland. Then she was off to the remote Dingle Peninsula on the western coast for more sightseeing.

As she pulled into the driveway of her vacation rental, everything went gray. She started sweating profusely, like nothing she’d experienced. She knew she needed help. After looking up what emergency number to dial (999), she called an ambulance.

The hospital was a 90-minute ride away on twisting roads. Pennington-Baird kept the mood as positive as possible by cracking jokes. Once there, it took doctors several hours and a CT scan to find the problem.

Pennington-Baird had experienced an aortic dissection, a life-threatening condition where the wall of the aorta – the main artery carrying blood away from the heart – tears. She needed open-heart surgery, and it would have to be done at a better-equipped hospital.

Another 90-minute ambulance ride took her to a hospital in Cork. As caregivers prepped her for surgery, she said: “Can you be crazy careful with the breathing tube? I’m a singer and a voice artist. I need my voice.”

She woke up the next day weak and in pain. Her heart was functioning properly again, thanks to a heart valve replacement. And, her voice was intact.

She also learned that recovery from the surgery would keep her in Ireland for several weeks.

“Everyone told me I was lucky to be alive, but no one really told me the seriousness of what had happened,” she said. “But they did bring me a lot of good Irish tea.”

Her husband returned for 10 days, but he had to go back to work. So her mother, Sharyn Pennington, flew from Seattle to help. At 75, it was her first trip to Europe.

Mother and daughter stayed in Cork to recuperate.

“I’d wake up in the middle of the night and tiptoe into her room to see if she was breathing, just like I did when she was young,” Pennington said.

As Pennington-Baird healed, she and her mother managed to get out frequently enough that the local taxi service knew her as “the heart girl.”

“Should we be having this much fun?” Pennington asked her daughter.

“Absolutely,” she answered.

Just under a month after the surgery, the two flew home.

The fun ended there.

Pennington-Baird had pains in her chest during the flight. It turned out that she had two infected sternum wires – the wires that hold the breastbone together after surgery – and needed more surgery to repair that.

Back in Seattle, the severity of her condition came into full, anxiety-inducing view. No cause was found for the dissection, though Pennington-Baird does have some family history of heart problems.

Always a good sleeper, she was suddenly afraid to sleep, fearing she might not wake up. She was given multiple medications and could hear the clicking of her heart valve (literally, thanks to the mechanical valve).

At first, her stationary bike sat dormant, because she was afraid her heart couldn’t take the stress. Not wanting to give it up, she turned to a cycling coach, who helped her craft a safe workout plan. She credits cycling with helping her fight her fears and return to fitness.

A couple months later, a CT scan for something unrelated revealed that Pennington-Baird had had two major asymptomatic strokes.

The so-called silent strokes have no noticeable symptoms but can still damage the brain. In her case, doctors told her they were amazed to detect no deficits.

Two months after that, in January 2020, she detected a lump in her breast. It was cancerous. She had a lumpectomy, radiation therapy and more medication.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Having just been through so much, I just took a deep breath and got through it,” Pennington-Baird said.

But she did not sit idle.

Instead, she started working on a show about her experience in Ireland.

Last year, Pennington-Baird debuted “Broken Wide Open” at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland. In the hourlong show, she sings 10 songs, backed by a Celtic band, and tells stories from harrowing to hilarious about her heart incident.

She said that researching, writing and performing the show was therapeutic.

“When you tell the story over and over, it loses its power over you,” said Pennington-Baird, who is now working on a book about the experience.

When she performed it in Seattle earlier this year, her mother was in the audience.

“I’d already listened to the audiobook, which helped me manage to not sit and cry during the whole thing,” Pennington said.

“I’m so proud of what Shana has done. The trauma she suffered has been eye-opening and educational. I think she’s handled it all really well. Plus, the kid’s talented.”

Written by Diane Daniel.

If you care about heart disease, please read studies about a big cause of heart failure, and common blood test could advance heart failure treatment.

For more information about heart health, please see recent studies about a new way to repair human heart, and results showing drinking coffee may help reduce heart failure risk.