University of Vermont

HEART MONTH: Class of 2015 Med Student Evangelista Shares Heart Survivor Story

Jessie Evangelista
Jessie Evangelista, class of 2015 (Photo by Raj Chawla, UVM Medical Photography)

Second-year University of Vermont medical student Jessie Evangelista has a lot of heart. She also has patience and warmth, which are all critical requirements for being a successful “cuddler” of babies in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). In fact, she has spent about 1,600 hours as a NICU volunteer – including 600 at Vermont Children’s Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care – but in 2010, her heart kept her from this favorite volunteer activity.

A native of Hughsonville, N.Y., Evangelista has suffered from a heart rhythm condition known as premature ventricular contractions (PVCs) her entire life. While PVCs are often benign, they can cause debilitating symptoms for some patients, including fatigue, shortness of breath, and dizziness. In some cases, very frequent PVCs can lead to deterioration in the normal function of the heart. Despite the extra, abnormal heartbeats typical in PVC, she managed to be active – ranking nationally in track & field – succeed in school, graduate from Middlebury College, and complete an 18-month post-baccalaureate pre-medical program at Columbia University. While applying to medical school, she worked as a pediatric hematology research assistant at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and volunteered for 12-hour overnight shifts cuddling NICU babies at New York-Presbyterian’s Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. It was there that she started to experience a literally unsettling change in her condition.

Her PVCs, which had begun as a few irregular beats, became an every-other-beat situation. “If I could keep moving, my PVCs rarely bothered me,” says Evangelista. “But it isn’t easy to keep moving when you are holding a sleeping, two-pound baby connected to a CPAP machine, feeding pump, and a central line in the middle of the night.” Her fingers and toes would go numb, and she had a gut-wrenching, burning sensation in her chest. “I was almost to the point where I couldn’t hold babies anymore,” shares Evangelista.

Still raw from the experience, with no new treatment options except for medications saddled with multiple side effects, Evangelista started medical school at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in August 2011. A recommendation from the Office of Medical Student Education led to a consultation with Robert Lobel, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at UVM and a cardiac electrophysiologist – specializing in treating abnormal heart rhythms – at Fletcher Allen.

Lobel appreciated the quality of life and activities Evangelista aspired to enjoy, and determined a treatment course for getting her back on track, a catheter ablation. This procedure is performed using special tools called catheters, placed inside the heart via the large veins in the legs, while the patient is awake. During the ablation, the specialist maps the electrical activity of the heart, identifies areas that are responsible for causing irregular heart rhythms (in this case, the PVC focus), then destroys those areas by delivering energy through the catheter to the desired location.

“Dr. Lobel didn’t just give me back my heart, he gave me back the joy and passion I have for cuddling and helping babies,” says Evangelista, who underwent this procedure just over a year ago and is eager to share her story to promote awareness of heart conditions like hers, as well as her positive experience with Lobel.

“It’s been over a year since Jesse had her ablation, and she is doing great,” Lobel says. “One of the greatest rewards of our profession comes from helping improve the quality of life for our patients. Jesse has an incredibly bright future and will be an outstanding neonatologist.”

In honor of the American Heart Association’s Heart Month in February and Wear Red Day on February 1, Evangelista, who hopes to become a neonatologist after graduating from medical school, will be adorning medical student lockers with red decorations and attending the Vermont Go Red For Women Luncheon on February 14.

“Every time that I am cuddling a sleeping baby in the NICU, I remember what it felt like when I almost lost this most important satisfaction in my life,” says Evangelista. “Dr. Lobel is the kind of physician that I can only dream of becoming,” she says, adding, “I will strive every day to treat all of my patients with the compassion, respect, and understanding with which Dr. Lobel treated me.”