Two brushes with death. Two life-saving Vanderbilt physicians. Then, two children.
"Vanderbilt will always be a place that we hold dear for everything they have done for us,” says Mary Beth Ballard Murray.July 15, 2020
Mary Beth Ballard Murray at home with her husband Chris and her sons Beckett, 3, and Hayes, who was born in April, 2020. Photo by Katie Davis/courtesy Murray family
Mary Beth Ballard Murray credits Vanderbilt doctors for saving her life on two different occasions — for two unrelated conditions.
And Vanderbilt University Medical Center is the reason that she was able to have her two sons, she said, one after each illness.
In February 2014, Murray was diagnosed with bladder cancer at 28 years old. Sam Chang, MD, the Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Urologic Surgery, successfully treated her and she has been cancer free since October 2014. Her successful treatment and continued cancer-free status led to her and her husband, Chris, welcoming their son, Beckett, in July 2017.
“Vanderbilt is simply amazing. I have two beautiful sons. My health is great and thank you to Dr. Shah and Dr. Chang for basically fixing me and allowing me the gift to grow my family.”
Later that year, Ashish Shah, MD, the Alfred Blalock Director and chair of Cardiac Surgery, performed an unrelated life-saving operation on the mitral valve in Murray’s heart. She had once again been diagnosed with an extremely rare condition without having any of the risk factors.
In April 2020, Murray and her husband had their second son, Hayes. Her two young boys are a testament to her health, she said.
“I’m really grateful,” said Murray, 34. “Vanderbilt is simply amazing. I have two beautiful sons. My health is great and thank you to Dr. Shah and Dr. Chang for basically fixing me and allowing me the gift to grow my family — two different times after pretty serious medical events.”
Murray, who lives with her family in Danville, Kentucky, has strong ties to Vanderbilt. She graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2011 with a Master of Education degree. She was working in the university’s office of Development and Alumni Relations when she noticed blood in her urine.
After being diagnosed with bladder cancer, she began receiving care from Chang, who performed an outpatient surgery called a transurethral resection of bladder tumor or TURBT, which indicated bladder cancer. Chang would later tell her that more than 60 percent of her bladder contained cancer. It’s a condition most common in older men and smokers.
For seven months, Murray underwent multiple TURBT surgeries and received immunotherapy known as Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG). In October of 2014, Chang declared her cancer-free.
“When initially diagnosed, I was told that having children may not be possible, or would at least be difficult. Having Beckett proved that my body had healed and that all was well.”
“I love him,” she said. “He truly cares about me and my family.”
Chang also gave her the green light to begin having a family, and by the end of 2016, she was pregnant with Beckett. “This was a true success story,” she said. “When initially diagnosed, I was told that having children may not be possible, or would at least be difficult. Having Beckett proved that my body had healed and that all was well.”
“Bizarrely, I then became very sick with something else.”
She knew something was wrong the night she returned from the hospital after having Beckett in July 2017. She had a fever and felt nauseous. Before long, she was back at the hospital.
“They couldn’t find anything wrong with me,” she said. “They did some blood work and didn’t really see anything at all unusual, but I just felt like something was not normal.”
All of the symptoms she was experiencing could be explained simply by being a new mother, her medical providers explained. She had just given birth by cesarean section, after all. She continued to have high fevers and chills, wrist and joint pain and some blurred vision.
“These things were kind of like phantoms,” she said. “They would come and go.”
Months later, she was still having the same symptoms. A doctor put her on a steroid, which seemed to help, but her symptoms shortly returned when she began to taper off the medication.
Four months after having her son, she began seeing an infectious disease doctor in Kentucky who discovered a bacterial infection in her blood. After more tests and an echocardiogram, the diagnosis was dire.
“I had a large bacterial growth, a vegetation, on my heart valve, which was very scary, because it could’ve broken off and caused a stroke,” she said. “The doctor said, ‘We need to do heart surgery and get this out of there probably in the next three days. I need to get you to the hospital now. You are really at risk for something serious happening.’”
“I thought if I’m going to have to have heart surgery, I’d rather go to Vanderbilt where I’ve had a successful experience with bladder cancer treatment and surgery. The place that I know well, I’m confident in and trust.”
Murray was scared. Though her scrape with bladder cancer was terrifying, it was a longer-term disease to be treated. This sickness was acute and needed immediate treatment. Though her doctor suggested arrangements to perform the surgery in Kentucky, she had second thoughts.
“I thought if I’m going to have to have heart surgery, I’d rather go to Vanderbilt where I’ve had a successful experience with bladder cancer treatment and surgery,” Murray said. “The place that I know well, I’m confident in and trust.”
Murray asked Chang for advice, and he referred her to Shah.
Shah encouraged her to come to Vanderbilt for surgery the next day. Her parents, to whom she is very close, secured a short-term rental in Nashville to care for her son while Murray and her husband headed to VUMC.
The diagnosis: endocarditis, an infection of the inner lining of the heart. That resulted in damage to the mitral valve, the valve between the left atrium and the left ventricle of the heart.
Shah performed a surgery lasting about four hours to remove the bacterial vegetation from Murray’s heart. While the traditional approach would be to replace her valve with a mechanical valve, that would have prevented her from having future children. Instead Shah and his team were able to reconstruct her own valve despite the infection.
“His demeanor and confidence made me feel very comfortable, as much as I could in that situation,” she said. “In hindsight, he said the vegetation he surgically removed was bigger than the echocardiogram really could show. He said essentially that it was a very good thing that he went ahead with it because the risk of stroke or blood clot would have been high.”
Murray remained in the hospital with intravenous antibiotics for seven days to ensure the bacteria did not return. After returning home, she would continue IV antibiotics for seven weeks.
“My whole family is just very thankful that we are all healthy and happy. Vanderbilt will always be a place that we hold dear for everything they have done for us.”
Her physical recovery took months and was both mentally and physically taxing, Murray said. But she slowly started feeling better. After about a year from her ordeal, she began seeing an obstetrician for high-risk patients who said that under close monitoring it was OK to try for another child.
In April 2020, she met her new son, Hayes. This time after returning home from the hospital, she felt great.
“I’m so relieved,” she said. “It’s like adding a bit of closure to what was a really tough experience. My whole family is just very thankful that we are all healthy and happy. Vanderbilt will always be a place that we hold dear for everything they have done for us.”
“Mary Beth is one of those patients who is so thoroughly and completely devoted to both her family and her own health,” Shah said. “She always asked important and insightful questions, despite the obviously terrifying possibilities. Her drive to be healthy for her family was inspiring to me and Dr. Chang. The best thing we do at Vanderbilt is to let families be families.”