In 2020, Yvelisse Boucher experienced numbness in her arm and leg and thought she might be pinching a nerve or sleeping on her side incorrectly. At the time, she had no health insurance, so she did not seek treatment. Months later, when she had health insurance, she discovered that the numbness wasn’t a pinched nerve or from a bad night’s sleep — she’d suffered a stroke after running out of insulin to treat her type 2 diabetes. She was stunned.
“I thought it was my neuropathy,” Boucher, 60, of New York City told TODAY. “Because I had no pain or symptoms, I never really thought about it.” After setting up care, she discovered she had to have coronary artery bypass surgery because several arteries were blocked. The new grandmother shares her story to encourage others not to ignore their health.
“Go for the annual checkup,” she said. “Don’t put it aside, because you’re not promised tomorrow.”
Searching for doctors reveals heart disease
When Boucher got new health insurance, she established care with all the new doctors. As a person with type 2 diabetes, she knew it was important to have an endocrinologist to treat it properly — and she also wanted to see an ophthalmologist. She feared that months without insulin could have damaged her retinas. Her endocrinologist suggested that Boucher see a cardiologist, which is when she realized her health was even worse than she realized.
“We started with a series of tests and scans and EKGs. Next thing I know I had an angioplasty,” Boucher said. “They discovered that I had three blockages. I didn’t know I was walking around with a bad ticker.”
Boucher had no pain or shortness of breath. After listening to her history, her cardiologist, Dr. Basera Sabharwal, a cardiology associate at Mount Sinai Morningside, ordered tests to better understand Boucher’s health.
“I realized that some of her symptoms related to both stroke and heart disease,” Sabharwal told TODAY. “I sent her to neurology – she did indeed have a stroke. I did some scans for her here and we found that three or four vessels were blocked.’
Sabharwal said she was first concerned when Boucher mentioned the numbness and weakness on one side of her body.
“(It) had been going on for a few months, so that was concerning, especially since her diabetes wasn’t well controlled either,” she explained. “With uncontrolled diabetes you are at risk for other diseases that you call cardiovascular, which means heart problems, strokes, blood vessels affecting the extremities including your legs, blood vessels affecting your kidneys, blood vessels affecting your eyes.”
After discovering the blockages, Boucher visited Dr. John Puskas, chairman of cardiovascular surgery at Mount Sinai Morningside, on her options. She could lose weight and see if that would change her heart health, or she could have bypass surgery. Although Boucher thought the bypass surgery would help her more, she was still afraid of undergoing such a invasive procedure.
“I was so scared of the surgery,” Boucher said. “I expected the worst with the scar, and I thought I was going to be maimed for life… I didn’t want to look ugly.”
Around the same time, her son had revealed that he and his wife were expecting a baby boy and the thought of becoming a grandmother made her realize the importance of having the bypass surgery.
“I’m blessed that my family is alive, but there was something about this little guy,” Boucher recalled. “He has given me so much strength.”
She knew she had to be healthy to be around her grandson and she also wanted to be strong enough to hold him. Since her stroke, Boucher couldn’t even hold a cup in her left hand because she was afraid she’d drop it. To prevent you from having another stroke, Puskas performs some sort of surgery where he doesn’t stop the heart from doing the bypass. It’s safer for the patient, but inconvenient for the surgeon, he said.
“The bypass was a one-way street that really reduced the risk of causing another stroke, which was one of our main goals. Her surgery was done with what we can, a “no aortic touch procedure,” meaning we didn’t clamp the aorta or cannulate the aorta or manipulate the aorta in any way,” Puskas told TODAY. “Her surgery was done without the heart-lung machine.”
While doctors often use veins to replace clogged arteries, Puskas uses arteries. They are more robust and can handle high blood pressure better, he said.
“We know that vein grafts don’t last as long as artery grafts,” he said.
This operation was safer for Boucher. “You keep an eye on the risk factors for her to avoid significant complications,” Puskas said. “We have achieved that with great pleasure.”
Meeting with her grandson
Boucher spent 10 days in the hospital and then went to a hospital for rehabilitation for two months. Recently, Boucher spent two weeks with her new grandson, Ezra. While she was excited to spend time with him, she realized she still needs to heal.
“I thought I would be a bit stronger to handle him and that’s where I still have to be patient with myself,” she said. “I’m learning to be patient with myself, with my recovery, not try to force things on me that I wanted to do.”
She felt excited by the chance to get to know Ezra.
He smiles when he sees me. He stared at me for a long time at first,” she said. “He tried to mimic me by sticking his tongue out like he was just a little stinker.”
Boucher hopes others learn from her lesson and keep up with their health screenings and appointments. She doesn’t want anyone else to go through what she went through.
“A full head-to-toe examination is necessary,” she said.
She encourages others to be brave, even when it feels hard.
“I tell people to find their inner warrior because we never know how strong you are,” she said. “You can’t just quit… You have to go through the whole experience and we find our strength.”