'A heart of gold'

Vanessa 'The Lunch Lady' Trosper returns to work after open-heart surgery

Carli Scalf • The Daily News // Samantha Brammer • Photos

Vanessa Trosper returned to her usual cash register in the Ball State Atrium on Oct. 27 with her familiar sweet smile and buoyant energy. If not for the scar on her chest, one would never know that a few months ago she underwent an open-heart, double-bypass surgery that saved her life.

Vanessa underwent double bypass surgery on Aug. 1 at Indiana University Health Ball Memorial Hospital in Muncie, IN. She was released to go home just five days later and after a week of rebuilding strength so she could walk around her home, she started cardiac rehab.

Vanessa began to have chest pains in the spring, but decided not to go to the doctor. In past years, she had gone to the hospital thinking she was having a heart attack, only to be told it was indigestion, and she didn’t want to make that mistake again.

As time progressed, however, the pain worsened. Vanessa had a hard time walking and was afraid to eat because of the perceived indigestion. As summer approached, she worked overtime in the Ball State cafeteria despite the increased discomfort.

On July 28, the pain was finally too much.

The heart of the problem

While standing at the cash register that summer day, the pain became so intense that Vanessa was in tears. She left work but did not allow her coworkers to call her an ambulance. As the evening went on, the pain increased.

“Every night for a week, she was up in the middle of the night crying from [what she thought was] heartburn so bad that she couldn’t catch her breath,” her mother, Alta Segraves, said.

Around 8 p.m., Alta decided it was finally time to call an ambulance.

Once Vanessa arrived at the hospital, she met Dr. Thomas Lees. Upon examination, he discovered the problem was not indigestion like Vanessa had thought.

“I found out … that it wasn’t indigestion, but heart failure. One artery was completely closed, and the other was 80 percent closed,” she said.

After discovering the extent of her blockages, Lees decided a double-bypass surgery would have to be performed to redirect the blood flow in the two blocked arteries. Otherwise, a heart attack was likely.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death among females in the United States. Heart problems are perceived to be predominantly male, but females are just as likely to experience heart problems as they age.

Vanessa said she’s lucky she went to the doctor before a heart attack was able to occur. She explained that women often don’t recognize the same symptoms of heart attacks that men do.

“Women have different symptoms; people should know that. Men have pain in their arm and chest — I had chest pain, but I also had pain up the side of my neck and into my face,” Vanessa said.

The CDC verifies Vanessa’s claim — it states that women are more likely to have pain in the neck, jaw or throat and that other symptoms include shortness of breath and extreme fatigue.

Vanessa describes how she was experiencing chest pain, as well as pain up the side of her neck and part of her face before she went to the hospital. Women have different pain than men when they might be having a heart attack. Men often experience pain in their chest and their arm, but women are more likely to experience pain in the neck, jaw or throat.

Vanessa said women should also be aware of their family history of heart problems. Heart problems ran in her family: her dad had several heart surgeries, the first at age 37, and her brother had also suffered a heart attack.

“I had a history, and I’ve been to the hospital twice [previously] telling them ‘Oh, I think I’m having a heart attack,’” she said.

Road to recovery

In the days before her surgery, Vanessa was told to go home and rest, only engaging in small activities. Her trademark positivity shone that week. Dubbing herself “the queen of purple,” she dyed her hair lavender and got a pedicure before having surgery.

“I thought, 'when I wake up, I don’t want my gray hair.' If I wake up and I’m all gray and I feel all ugh — I try to stay positive,” she said.

Vanessa’s positivity has carried her through many stressful events in the past several years. In April 2014, her son died at age 30 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis; her mother’s boyfriend also recently died, and Vanessa moved in shortly after to take care of her; and Vanessa had just recovered from a hernia operation she had in May when her heart pains began.

“You can’t let life bring you down. I could be so depressed, like in-the-gutter depressed, but I don’t let it get to me. Things sometimes happen for a reason,” she said.

Vanessa continued with cardiac rehab for several weeks and joined Planet Fitness after the first stages of cardiac therapy. She planned to come back to work at Ball State on Oct. 17 and has now been back for three weeks.

Vanessa said her son still inspires her to stay positive; she knows he would want her to celebrate his life and her own, too.

Vanessa’s strength and resilience were especially important as she recovered from surgery. After Aug. 1, her recovery process was slow but steady. There was a lot of coughing and chest pain at the beginning, and much of her chest is still numb. Despite the pain, she said the relief was instant.

“What amazed me was how much better I felt [after surgery],” Vanessa said. “I was so ready to get up and walk again.”

She was so eager to walk again that the nurses had to put an alarm on her hospital chair after she tried to get up on her own without help from anyone.

Vanessa’s surgery was performed Aug. 1, and just five days later, she was released to recover at home. After a week of rebuilding enough strength to walk around the house again, she began cardiac rehab.

“They have this big room of treadmills, and people come in and get their resting heart rate and blood pressure checked,” she said. “You have to do a lot of cardio, and then while you’re doing cardio, they check your blood pressure and make sure everything’s OK.”

She continued cardiac rehab for several weeks despite one small setback. A week into rehab, she broke her toe after stubbing it on a footstool at home. Even this didn’t stop the optimist. She rode the stationary bike for the rest of her therapy, which could support the boot she had to wear on her foot.

She opted to join Planet Fitness after the first few stages of cardiac therapy and has expanded her exercises now that her toe has healed.

“I do some leg and lower body work because my doctor said take it easy, this is still healing,” she said.

In addition to cardiac rehab, Vanessa was also prescribed six medications, including blood thinners and a blood pressure medication. Though she was not yet fully recovered, Vanessa felt well enough to return to work. She prepared to come back to her post on Oct. 17.

Queen of the cashier

Vanessa has been back at work for almost three weeks and has never been better. Now that the initial surgery pain is behind her, she is beginning to feel the full effects of a healed heart.

“Before surgery, it was very, very hard for me to keep going for very long because I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I breathe now, and it’s so weird. I turned down [working] overtime because I was tired all the time, but now I’m energized.”

Vanessa is a fourth-generation lunch lady, following in her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother's footsteps. She loves her job and is proud of the lineage of women that she follows.

Vanessa is happy to be back at work. She is a fourth-generation lunch lady. Her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother have all served food to students before, and it’s a lineage she’s proud of. Vanessa has loved her job at Ball State since she first started working here in 2004. The community among the dining employees is one of her favorite parts.

“We have an awesome lunch staff all the way through,” she said. “We move around, but we all see each other at the meeting once a year and outside of work. We’ve made lots of good, long-time friends.”

Lana Elliott, Vanessa’s coworker in the Atrium, has known her for six years. She said that while everyone had to pitch in a little more while Vanessa was recovering, what they really missed was the energy she brings to work.

“We missed her because she brings humor and fun to the job. She’s kind of the queen of our cashier system, so we missed her,” Lana said. “For somebody that’s been through the trials she’s been through, she could have a really crappy attitude” — but she doesn’t.

Part of what keeps Vanessa positive every day is her interactions with students.

“It’s fun and keeps me young,” she said. “Everybody that comes through, no matter what food they get, always has to pass through the registers.”

Her page on Facebook, Ask the Lunch Lady - BSU, has 450 followers and documents her life at work. Present and former students keep up with her there, many of whom have felt the joy that Vanessa brings to work.

“Vanessa has been a smiling face in the Atrium since I first visited Ball State on my campus visit in high school,” said Trevor Holland, a junior public relations major. “I love all the goofy and funny stuff she shares on her Facebook page.”

Senior English major Emily Barsic has known Vanessa since her freshman year and loves her positivity.

“I’ll go through the lunch line, and she’ll always ask how my day is, and I’ll ask her the same. She always encourages you and tells you you can get through classes,” she said. “Her glasses are really cool, too.”

Being back at work after surgery hasn’t dampened Vanessa’s positivity — it has only made it stronger.

“She [looks] so much better. To see her come back and look healthy made us all happy,” Lana said. “She has a heart of gold.”

Carli Scalf // DN

Samantha Brammer // Photos

Tyson Bird // Design