Under the Dome

Rep. Becky Carney returns after heart surgery: ‘Miracles happen’

Tuesday was the easy day for Rep. Becky Carney.

All she had to do was keep her composure as she addressed her House colleagues in Raleigh for the first time in nearly two months.

“I’m here today by the grace of God, the power of prayer and hanging onto life,” said an emotional Carney. “I am standing before you and grateful from the bottom of my still-beating heart.”

When you’ve stared down death for a second time, speaking is the least of your worries.

It was on another Tuesday six years ago that the Charlotte Democrat returned to the House after a similar absence.

Two months earlier she’d collapsed in her legislative office. She’d slumped over her desk, her face blue, her pulse stopped. A lawmaker who happened to be a doctor rushed in. With help from a police officer and a defibrillator, she was revived and taken to Raleigh’s WakeMed hospital.

Doctors diagnosed “sudden cardiac death,” which is just that. She had a pacemaker implanted and returned to work.

This year, while attending her son’s wedding in Nevada over the Fourth of July, she began feeling like she would pass out. Her heart was giving out once more. She was hospitalized there and again when she returned to North Carolina.

Doctors said her heart was deteriorating. If nothing was done, it would simply stop.

So Carney, 70, faced a choice: Get on a transplant list or get an artificial pump implanted in her chest. She chose the pump.

In early August doctors at the University of North Carolina Medical Center performed open heart surgery and implanted a left ventricular assist device. The LVAD is a mechanical pump that delivers blood from the left ventricle to the aorta and on to the rest of the body.

A tube extends through the skin to a control unit, which in turn is connected to battery packs. On Tuesday they were all concealed in a black shoulder bag.

“I was at death’s door until they did this surgery,” Carney said Tuesday. “So I’m so grateful yet again that I get to put one foot in front of the other.”

Years ago, before her heart problems, Carney contracted Legionnaires Disease, another often fatal illness.

“My daughter said, ‘You’re like a cat. You’ve got nine lives,’” she said. “‘You’ve got six more to go.’”

In her seventh term, Carney is one of the House’s senior members. An even more senior member, Democratic Rep. Mickey Michaux of Durham, announced his seatmate’s arrival in the chamber.

“She’s just as radiant as she was when she left here,” he said. Colleagues greeted her with hugs and a standing ovation.

Carney never had any doubt that she’d return. The question was when. Legislators, who just passed a state budget last week, inadvertently accommodated her by extending the session into late September.

“If I get thrown a curve ball, I pick it up and throw it back,” Carney said. “I don’t ever think about quitting. It’s not in my vocabulary.”

On her way to the legislative building , Carney worried not about what she would say on the floor but whether she’d get through it.

“It’ll be very emotional, I’m sure not just for me but for many of my colleagues,” she said as she rode with her husband, Gene.

With mic in hand, she thanked those colleagues for their support and prayers.

“Miracles happen,” she told them. “But boy, I’ve had several in my life. Don’t anybody ask me if I believe in ’em. I am one.”