When Su Lee was just seven years old, he found out he had a heart murmur, caused by a congenital heart defect.
The heart murmur was discovered at a routine check-up after Lee was in a car accident with a family member.
Unfortunately, Lee didn’t have access to the needed medical expertise to fix his heart. Lee was born and raised in American Samoa, and when he was young, there was limited access to surgical services in his area. The only option was to travel to Hawaii to have a doctor perform the surgery there.
“We weren’t able to get it fixed,” Lee said. “My passport was expired, and by the time we had the option to go to Hawaii, I was in the middle of high school. I also don’t think my parents or I realized how important it was that we get this fixed.”
Lee continued on with his life and lived with the heart murmur for many years while experiencing few issues. He played some sports and hit the gym without noticing any major symptoms.
In 2018, Lee had the opportunity to leave American Samoa and come to the United States. He first volunteered for the Red Cross in North Carolina after Hurricane Michael.
When I got to the United States and saw what it was like, I remember thinking, ‘Maybe being here will change my life.
Lee’s aunt worked at a turkey factory in Ephraim, Utah, so he left South Carolina to join her. For the next year, Lee worked with his aunt at the turkey factory. The work was physically demanding, and he started experiencing painful symptoms.
“I started having sharp pains in my chest, so I drove to Salt Lake for a checkup,” Lee said. “The doctor told me what I already knew. It was a heart murmur.”
Soon after his trip to Salt Lake City, he and his aunt decided to relocate there. He got a new job and was symptom-free for the next three years. Then, in 2022, he had a sudden onset of symptoms.
“I started to feel numb in my left leg,” Lee said. “I woke up and tried walking, but I couldn’t. It went away long enough for me to get to work, but then the numbness returned.”
Lee went to the hospital, where doctors completed a thorough assessment and Lee ended up staying for two weeks.
They discovered that he had a large atrial septal defect (ASD).
“It was starting to impact the blood flow to my brain, causing a small stroke that impacted my left leg,” Lee said.
Because of insurance issues, Lee was then referred to see Vikas Sharma, MD, at the University of Utah. Dr. Sharma is a cardiothoracic surgeon who has been at the U for more than five years and has special interest in adults with congenital heart disease.
“Getting referred to Dr. Sharma and the U was a great opportunity for me,” Lee said.
Sharma told Lee what he already knew: he had an atrial septal defect that was causing a heart murmur. It had led to right heart enlargement and hypertrophy.
“An atrial septal defect is basically a hole between the upper chambers of the heart,” Sharma said. “It’s a very common congenital heart defect.” Most of these defects are diagnosed and corrected in childhood, but some patients like Lee have been living with this defect for so long. “After meeting Su, I recommended that he have the surgery as soon as possible.”
At this point, Lee was on board.
I was desperate to have the surgery. I was scared I was going to have another stroke.
“The surgery took seven hours,” Lee said. “But when I woke up, it felt like nothing had happened. Then I started coughing and feeling pain and knew they must have done it.”
This less invasive technique is effective and speeds up post-surgery recovery.
“Normally, if you do a sternotomy on a heart surgery patient, they need at least four weeks of down time after surgery,” Sharma said. “The difference in the recovery with this approach is quite stark. Su was able to get back to activity in just a few weeks after surgery.”
Lee spent four days in the hospital before returning home. In the months since his surgery, he has noticed a dramatic difference in his physical health.
Before surgery, Lee struggled to build muscle or gain weight. Now, he is at a much healthier weight and has the energy he needs to live a full life.
Now I’m running, I move a lot, and I take my dogs out to the park all the time. I work full time at Amazon, lifting boxes nonstop. I can breathe well, and I can catch my breath. I feel so much better, and I’m really relieved.
In the months following his surgery, Lee and his girlfriend have been getting out more. They went on a camping trip in the fall and took a road trip to Twin Falls, Idaho. Lee now enjoys playing the sports he has missed for so long. He and his girlfriend frequently visit their local park to go running and play soccer.
Lee’s transformation goes beyond the physical. He has also noticed a positive shift in his overall mental health.
“Before surgery, I would get angry really easily,” he said. “I don’t know why, but I haven’t felt anything like that since the surgery. I feel like my life has changed a lot. I feel like the new me.”
More positive life changes are coming for Lee and his girlfriend as they prepare to welcome a baby in the coming months.
“We are really excited,” Lee said. “I’m so glad I got the surgery and am healthy again. Now I can be there for my child.”
Lee is incredibly grateful to have his life back—and for the expert medical care that made this transformation possible.
“Dr. Sharma was really kind and one of the best,” he said. “He helped me have courage going into the surgery. Thanks to him, I wasn’t worried or scared at all on surgery day. I was ready. And now, thanks to him, I have my life back.”
Authored by Katie Cummock for
University of Utah Health