from the heart
By Mark Johnston
Photography by Johnny Quirin
knows what so many of us have pondered
at some point: What goes through your mind
when you die?
On Jan. 15,
2005, Buursma lay in a bed in Spectrum
center in full cardiac arrest. Her heart
gave out for nearly 45 seconds, “flat
lining” on an electrocardiograph,
seemingly succumbing after a brutal nine-month
stretch that began with a heart attack
the previous April and included 10 hours
of quadruple bypass surgery that left her
unconscious for three days the following
In recovery from the surgery,
her heart raced at a dangerously high 180 beats
per minute. So five weeks after the operation,
she returned to the heart center for voluntary
defibrillation in an attempt to restore a regular
and safer heart beat.
Instead, her heart stopped. And
as her medical team worked to revive her, the
ominous flat line
on the monitor hummed uninterrupted by nary a
blip for 10 … 20 … 30 seconds. Her
eyelids remained closed.
But she still had vision.
I know at that point that I’m in my bed.
I know I’m being resuscitated,” she
said. “I can feel the doctor take my hand,
and I see his aura — my eyes are closed,
but I can see him standing there in his white
The doctor” is Richard McNamara, a specialist
with West Michigan Heart and chief of cardiology
at Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, whose impeccable
credentials include board certification in internal
medicine, critical care, cardiovascular disease
and interventional cardiology.
Sharon’s blood pressure was down to about
50 or 60,” McNamara said. “We were
doing everything we could do, but it wasn’t
clear she was going to survive.”
McNamara has another “credential” that
doesn’t appear on his résumé.
As Buursma is quick to point out, he is a very
So I’m lying there,” she recalls, “and
I say to myself, ‘Rick McNamara is holding
my hand. Is this ‘to die for’ or
Then Buursma, releasing soulful
laughter that makes you feel better just being
chides herself. “Sharon, I think you could
have used a better choice of words.”
That anecdote is saturated with meaning, for
it not only reveals the heart of this woman,
but also the humor, the spirit and the will that
defines who she is and anchors the mission she
There are numerous entry points
ledger of professional accomplishments, including
her designation by Grand Rapids Business Journal
as one of West Michigan’s 50 Most Influential
Women; a career in health care that took her
from registered nurse to executive vice president
of Spectrum Health; her tenure as president and
CEO of Visiting Nurse Association; her service
on many college-level advisory and community
service boards. The list of distinctions goes
on and on.
Yet, her greatest platform for
achieving her modest but most precious goal to “leave
the world a little better” than she found
it is a comparatively low-profile volunteer position
she has assumed for the past two years: corporate
co-chairperson of the local “Go Red For
Women” campaign, coordinated with the American
Heart Association each February to heighten heart
Buursma is committed to helping
women improve their heart health, using her own
story and a
message that is direct, informed and true:
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women and
And if you don’t educate your mind and
tend to your body, you are at greater risk
of developing it.
could happen to you’
Sitting together on one of many
full bookshelves in Buursma’s comfortable and orderly Grand
Rapids home are the Holy Bible and “The
Putting Bible,” tomes of her faith and
her passion for golf.
But Buursma herself is the open
book here. As she curls into a corner of a sleek
her hands clasped around a mug of decaffeinated
coffee when they aren’t gently shooing
away her two tabby cats, Babe and Bambino,
Buursma, 62, explains why she can so openly
People say I’m inspirational and that’s
fine, but why wouldn’t I share this story?” she
said. “It’s really impossible for
people to be unhappy if they are grateful. With
everything that has happened to me, I feel so
grateful. And if other women can learn from me …”
The lesson begins in 2003 when
Buursma, who divorced 14 years earlier, was immersed
in her impressive,
fast-paced and consuming career. Supplementing
her loaded work schedule with travel — she
revels in her and her friends’ match play
on the famed St. Andrews golf course in Scotland
that year — Buursma put little thought
into how her hectic lifestyle was not a good
match for her inherited health constitution.
She knew her family had a history of heart disease
and non-insulin-dependent diabetes (she has subsequently
been diagnosed as a Type II diabetic); she knew
that at 165 pounds, she was about 40 pounds overweight;
she knew she had been battling high blood pressure
since her late 20s; and she knew her lifestyle
(and a penchant for chocolate) did not lead to
a healthy diet.
But it wasn’t until April
2004 that the risks became reality. In the midst
of a typically
busy work day at a new job, Buursma felt discomfort
in her chest near the bottom of her esophagus.
She initially attributed it to simple indigestion.
It felt like I had swallowed an entire can of
pop that got stuck there, and I just couldn’t
burp,” she said.
“On a 10-point pain
scale, it probably registered at about a 0.5 — hardly
Later that evening, she experienced severe pain
in the back of her neck that a heating pad and
fitful attempts at sleep could not alleviate.
By the next morning,
the neck pain had subsided but the indigestion had returned. By that night the
pain had intensified to the point where she finally conceded something was not
My vital signs were stable, so I grabbed five pair of underwear and some makeup
and drove myself to (Spectrum’s) Butterworth campus,” she said
(adding her advice to others not to drive themselves in similar situations).
Shortly after admittance, an electrocardiogram revealed she was having a heart
I knew I was in the best place. I was in my environment and I wasn’t panicked
about it at all,” she said.
However, the exam revealed extensive heart disease that not only included several
blocked arteries but what appeared to be a site of “old” damage,
which crystallized a startling memory for Buursma. She recalled that 20 years
earlier, at age 40, she had a similar “indigestion” episode that
passed without much thought.
She had experienced a “silent” heart
attack without even knowing it.
There was no severe, chest-clutching
pain or similar symptoms typically associated
with men who have heart attacks, only subtle signs that women often fail to
recognize — signs
that Buursma ironically had read about in a local newspaper article just a
few weeks before her 2004 heart attack.
Symptoms can be anywhere — in the front, in the back, in the neck,” she
said. “Women’s symptoms of heart attack are much more subtle, and
consequently, women are more likely to die outside of the hospital setting
from unknown causes.
Up until a short time ago, people didn’t realize women have heart attacks
as often as men. As a coronary care nurse many years ago, I almost never saw
women in a coronary care unit.”
The nine months following the
April ’04 attack were consumed by heart
repair and setbacks. Doctors initially inserted
nine stents, or tiny tubes, to open
her blocked heart arteries. But by October, she again sensed something was
I was on the treadmill, and I noticed just the slightest tightness in my chest,” she
said. “At this point, the message is all about getting to know your body.
This was just something I hadn’t felt before.”
A subsequent exam revealed the
stents had failed. “All nine!” she
said with more marvel than dismay in her voice. “But there’s always
somebody out there who has 10,” she added, comically snapping her fingers
in mock frustration that she may not have set a stent failure record.
Open heart surgery was now required: a quadruple bypass procedure during which
she spent 10 hours on a heart and lung machine. The day before the surgery, she
composed an e-mail that she sent to friends and loved ones.
I explained my health situation,” she said. “And I said, ‘I
don’t think my life’s work is done. I don’t want you to be
afraid; I’m in good hands. But I want you to do one thing for me: Pray
for me. And if you’re a woman, I want you to know this could happen to
need to be grateful’
Complications plagued her recovery, culminating in the near-death experience
five weeks after the operation, as recalled by McNamara.
I have been at West Michigan Heart for 18 years and in that time, her condition
was among the worst of patients who have survived (similar circumstances),” he
said. “I have seen but a handful that have been on death’s door that
have recovered to the extent she has. I use the word ‘miracle’ very
sparingly in this business, but I think it applies in this case.”
In more than one way, perhaps. During the three days Buursma lay unconscious
in recovery from the quadruple bypass, she experienced a spiritual paradigm shift.
I saw this magnetic field in the shape of angel wings around my bed, kind of
like an electric field with bands in it,” she recalled. “And three
messages came to me. One, I need to be grateful for every single day, for the
good things and the bad things. Two, I wondered how I was going to get a close
friend of mine to stop smoking. And three, I knew I was nice and respectful,
but I didn’t pay enough attention to people.”
That has changed.
I’m now just this incredible people person,” she said. “I’m
a much warmer person, a much better listener. It just changed my life.”
It changed her lifestyle, too.
She diligently takes her heart medications, works
at home in order to have stricter control over her diet — which no longer
includes salt or sugar — and engages in at least six hours of aerobic exercise
per week. She has lost 40 pounds, prompting her to stretch her arms wide, playfully
shift her hips to one side and gleefully exclaim, “Now, I have the body
I’ve always dreamed of!”
And those gadgets hooked onto
the belt loops of her jeans? They aren’t
heart or blood pressure monitors. They’re a pocket-sized Dell personal
computer and a Blackberry communicator, indispensable tools during her busy
working days as a management consultant with Varnum Consulting.
She has also established very
clear, very ordered personal priorities: finding
peace through God; maintaining a healthy life/work/diet balance; giving back
to others; supporting, encouraging and loving her two stepchildren and four
grandchildren; honing her golf game; and reaching
others through “Go Red For Women.”
I know it sounds hokey, but I swear to God, I would re-live this year over again
because of everything I’ve learned,” she said.
And everything she has taught.
is the right word’
Kathleen Vogelsang, investments director for
Van Andel Institute, read about Buursma in a
newspaper article published last year to highlight “Go Red
For Women” efforts. She was moved, if not initially motivated, by Buursma’s
I thought, ‘This is too bad for her, but I’m healthy, none of this
applies to me,’” said Vogelsang, also a corporate co-chair with the “Go
Red” campaign. “A week later, I started feeling fatigue, chest
pain, some pain in my arm.
There was something about that article that stuck in my mind. I went to the doctor
and learned on Valentine’s Day (2005) that my blood pressure was so high,
it was in stroke territory.
That was a real wakeup call to me. I’m only 45, an age where we’re
still young and healthy, and we think we have the rest of our lives. But we’re
silently doing damage to our hearts and not doing anything to check it.
Sharon has dedicated the rest of her life to getting that word out. ‘Inspirational’ is
the right word to describe her.” McNamara agrees.
Sharon is very interested in living,” he said. “She is a believer.
She has experienced something not a lot of people do and has insight not a lot
of people have. Things don’t become real until they become personal.
Sharon becomes both without becoming maudlin. She is intrinsically very honest.
she is a teacher, a leader and a communicator.”
For all of her good humor, her indomitable optimism and openness, Buursma approaches
those roles carefully, never discounting the gravity of heart disease.
I don’t want to scare women to death — sometimes women just have
indigestion,” she said. “But if you have family heart history and
this history is strong, go visit a cardiologist. Become more aware of your body.
That’s what this is all about. That’s the message.
I have the ability to save lives now more than I ever did as a staff nurse or
a top executive. Most of the time you don’t know the trail you’re
leaving. But in this case, I know I can leave a big mark. I’m so blessed
to be able to do that.” GR