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Sue Bowers of Mount Vernon has not let anything slow her down, not even her own death.

Bowers, 66, inherited her father’s bicuspid aortic valve disease, which led her to having open heart surgery in 2010 at the age of 64. During that surgery, her heart actually stopped for several seconds.

“I actually died and had to be resuscitated,” she said.

Bicuspid aortic valve disease is often the result of a congenital defect of the heart where two of the aortic valves fuse during development resulting in a valve that is bicuspid instead of the normal triple — or tricuspid — configuration, according to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Although it is possible for some people to live a normal life span without experiencing problems due to this condition, many affected will require treatment during their lifetime.

Throughout time a bicuspid valve might lose its ability to open widely, close properly or both.

The condition is estimated to exist in aoubt 2 percent of the population, predominantly in men. “I inherited it from my father,” Bowers said. “I have a twin sister who was lucky and did not.”

February is American Heart Month, and unfortunately, most people know someone who has suffered from cardiovascular disease; currently the leading cause of death in the United States.

One in every three U.S. deaths is from heart disease and stroke — equal to 2,200 deaths per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cardiovascular disease is also very expensive — together heart disease and stroke hospitalizations in 2010 cost the nation more than $444 billion in health care expenses and lost productivity. Heart disease and stroke also are the leading causes of disability preventing people from working and enjoying everyday activities.

But Bowers wasn’t having any part of that.

Active and athletic before her surgery, she was determined to stay that way.

Following her surgery, she experienced a third-degree heart block and had to rely on a pacemaker, which she still has today. She also developed high blood pressure and lost almost all of her strength from the trauma her body went through.

Bowers remembers being so weak she was unable to even open her refrigerator door.

“I couldn’t push or pull anything that required more than five pounds of effort,” she said. “I got so tired just driving my husband to the Metro in the morning that I would have to take a nap in my car before even leaving the station.”

Her sternum had been cut completely in half during her surgery, resulting in her shoulders beginning to hunch forward afterward, a condition that if not addressed, she said, would eventually cause her further debilitation.

“It was a rough time, but I was not about to let these things dictate what I could and could not do for the rest of my life,” she said. “I didn’t want to have to stop living.”

Bowers began undergoing a series of rehabilitative exercises at Sport & Health Club in Alexandria and today works out six days a week as well as regularly riding her bicycle and taking Tango dance lessons.

Two years after her surgery, she has been taken off her blood pressure medication and is now taking spinning, Pilates and cardio classes.

“I actually started doing strength training exercises for awhile before my surgery to build my muscles up as much as I could because I knew that as difficult as that was, it would be easier then than afterwards,” she said. “Looking back, that was the best thing I did for myself.”

In addition to her exercises, Bowers continues to work as a commercial interior designer.

“As part of my job, I have to carry around a bag full of tile, carpet and paint samples that weighs 50 pounds,” she said. “And I have to often carry it up several flights of stairs because I am going to construction sites where elevators have not yet been installed.”

Bowers’ Pilates instructor, Tara Egresits, said she is amazed at how much Bowers has accomplished since her open heart surgery.

“She is pretty remarkable,” Egresits said. “When we are in session, you honestly cannot tell Sue apart from anyone else in the class. In both her energy and her physicality, she looks and works like a 28-year-old.”

In addition to her renewed energy and active lifestyle, Bowers now also has a tale she is fond of telling about her surgery.

“They told me I could have a mechanical valve or a cow valve to replace my defective one,” she said. “I did not want a mechanical one because I would have to take Coumadin the rest of my life, so I chose the cow valve. But I asked for one from a specific type of cow: a Scottish Hairy Coo, which is a beautiful big red cow I had seen on a recent trip to Scotland. I am a redhead myself, so that’s what I wanted.”

Bowers said against all odds, physicians actually located just such a valve for her, in Italy.

“So now,” she said, “I tell all my colleagues in the interior design industry that I have an Italian designer Scottish Coo heart valve.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com