The Heart of the Matter
“I believe attitude and faith plays a vital role in our lives … you must stay strong, positive, and focused on yourself and your future,” Sue Smith, director of the college store at Elizabethtown College, said.
Wise words from a woman who, since the age of 29, has battled through life-threatening illnesses, including cancer and heart disease, and has come out stronger, healthier—and wiser—on the other side.
Smith recalls her childhood in Levittown, Pa., fondly, although there were challenges when her father left the family when she was just 9 years old and moved to Florida. She moved there to be with him for a few years until he died suddenly at the age of 41 of a massive heart attack.
Smith and her two youngest siblings all ended up moving back to Pennsylvania, to Middletown, to live with their grandmother, who had been caring for Smith’s mother, suffering from MS, since her father’s departure.
“My mother died a few years later due to complications of MS at the age of 45,” Smith recalls. She lived with her grandmother until she was 15 and then moved to State College with some friends and has been on her own ever since.
It was in 1995 that she answered an ad for a part-time buyer for Elizabethtown’s College store. She had no experience in retail or as a buyer, but “I had two young children and lived just a few blocks from the college, so it sounded perfect.”
She decided the best approach to getting hired was to say hello to those she would potentially be working with.
“I introduced myself to the two women working there, our personalities clicked, and the following week I had an interview,” Smith said.
She was offered and took the job that August. Since her co-workers had all been working in the store for more than 20 years, Smith, a member of the “younger generation” who by default was assumed to be more technologically savvy then her co-workers, quickly became the store “techie.”
“I’m far from tech savvy, but I helped them move into the 21st century,” she said.
She was then promoted to textbook manager, where she remained until becoming director in 2011.
Smith’s duties include managing and overseeing the entire store. She is responsible for budgets, open-to-buys, marketing, strategic planning, hiring … and anything else that comes her way, along with managing her small but effective staff who she says “all work together as a team to get the job done. Thanks to my many years of on-the-job training, I can jump in anywhere I am needed.
“I love Elizabethtown College and the college store. Every day is a different day—it never gets old. I try to make people laugh and smile and encourage them to not worry about the small stuff. I live by this motto too.”
She also volunteers with the Give Kids the World organization in Florida where “families with sick children come from all over the world, all expenses paid, and spend time at the various parks.”
Smith and her co-volunteers are involved in all kinds of ways to help brighten the lives of the kids and families who are there on the trips, and she says fondly of her co-volunteers, “The friendships and bonds formed on these trips are priceless.”
The importance of a positive experience and the support of family and friends when you’re ill is something Smith herself completely understands. It was in 1991 that she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and underwent one year of chemo and radiation treatments.
“I had a tumor the size of a cantaloupe wrapped around my heart and lung,” she recalls. “I remember reading one of my CAT scan results, and it said I had advanced signs of atherosclerosis.”
But when she asked her oncologist about it, he told her not to worry about it, so she never gave it another thought. Her main worry at that time was her children, who were very young.
“I worried that I wouldn’t be there for them,” Smith said. “I was a single mom at that point in my life; I didn’t want them to grow up without their parent as I did.”
Ten years later, Smith began experiencing signs of a stroke—flashing lights and floaters in her eyes—and had to have a carotid endarterectomy.
“My carotid artery was 95 percent blocked from the plaque buildup, or atherosclerosis,” she said.
Two years after that procedure, she began to notice a throbbing in her neck when walking to her car. She found a local cardiologist who sent her for a stress test and some heart scans. Because of some issues that were identified, she was then sent for a heart catheterization.
“I went in for the heart cath and never left until after my emergency double-bypass open heart surgery,” she said. “The surgeon told me that I had the ‘widow maker’ blockage, and he couldn’t believe I was sitting on the bed smiling … I should have been dead. I was 42 years old, one year older than my father when he died.”
Her surgeon told her that her father likely died as a result of the same type of blockage.
Heart problems run strong on her father’s side of the family, with many of her relatives dying in their late 30s or early 40s. But there was also the problem of high cholesterol in the family that “back in the day,” she said, wasn’t really focused on.
“I know now that we have a genetic problem that is called familial hypercholesterolemia, which causes high levels of LDL cholesterol levels beginning at birth and heart attacks at an early age,” Smith says.
Unfortunately, the condition has been inherited by members of the next generation within her family, although her children have “miraculously been spared,” she said.
Always one to look on the positive side of things, Smith recalls thinking that, after her battle with cancer, she knew herself to be a survivor. That knowledge made facing the heart issue “a bit easier to face than the cancer because my children were grown now and could take care of themselves,” she said.
After her heart issues, Smith had to move from the hobby farm where she lived and where she indulged her love of animals because she had some restrictions and it was just too much work. It was very difficult to give up her dream of living on a farm.
And although she has noticed changes in her body, she’s now “resolved to enjoy every moment and be happy to be alive. So what if I am a bit chunky and sassy?”
With a very supportive family by her side, Smith continues to monitor her health carefully and is even participating in a brand-new drug therapy for familial hypercholesterolemia.
Her advice for all women is to remember that “you are in control of your own health, nobody else,” she said. “Pay attention to your body and what it might be trying to tell you. If I wouldn’t have noticed the slight throbbing in my neck, I am positive I would not be telling you my story today.” BW