Vernelle Lilly has a terrific smile and radiates life and warmth. Although she’s in her 70s, the retired educator looks at least a decade younger. She was born in Virginia, raised in Philadelphia, and she and her husband Roger moved to Delaware in 1989. As a teacher, she was motivated and highly organized. Later, she moved on to the final chapter of her career, working in Delaware’s schools as a school counselor.
In 1999, Lilly suffered a severe heart attack while at work. “The pain hit me in my chest,” she said. She stepped away from her desk and made her way into an unoccupied room. There, the custodian found her, and called for help. Like many women who suffer cardiac arrest, Lilly had no physical warning signs or symptoms before her heart attack.
In short order, Lilly was off to the hospital, where doctors cleared her blockage. After she returned home, Lilly made an appointment with cardiologist Judith Rippert, DO, FACC of Delaware Heart & Vascular, P.C. in Dover. Dr. Rippert earned her Bachelor of Science in biology from Ursinus College and graduated from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) as a doctor of Osteopathy. She completed her internal medicine residency at Osteopathic Medical Center of Philadelphia and fellowship training at Graduate Hospital, also in Philadelphia. In 1997, Dr. Rippert opened Delaware Heart & Vascular with Vincent Abbrescia, DO, FACC, and the practice has since grown to include three more cardiologists. Dr. Rippert and her colleagues are closely associated with Bayhealth.
Dr. Rippert is part of a team of skilled, experienced heart and vascular experts that are committed to providing top tier care in Delaware. Bayhealth has partnered with Penn Medicine Heart and Vascular — ranked among the top 10 cardiology and heart surgery programs in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Our relationship with Penn has provided Bayhealth physicians with access to training and resources that ensure the highest standards in cardiovascular care.
Dr. Rippert informed Lilly that her heart attack might be just the beginning. “Dr. Rippert told me that if something else was going to go wrong with my heart, it would happen in the next six months,” said Lilly. Almost six months to the day, Lilly suffered another complication — the buildup of plaque in her arteries — which led to triple bypass surgery. As Dr. Rippert saw Lilly through her recovery, the two women quickly developed a bond that has held for 16 years and is still going strong.
Although there is no typical heart patient, Lilly is one of millions of African American women who share a statistically higher risk of heart disease. Family history plays a large part — and Lilly’s turned up four enormous red flags — she had four aunts who died of heart disease before they reached 60 years old. “I knew how they died, but I never put two and two together,” said Lilly.
With Dr. Rippert’s advice, Lilly has taken steps to prolong her own life and has lived an amazing 16 years after her heart attack and subsequent procedures. Although she’s been able to make an admirable recovery, Lilly understands that her health is her responsibility. She said that her husband, her faith, her family, and Dr. Rippert have provided her with great support. “My little man, my three-year-old grandson, he keeps me going,” said Lilly. Dr. Rippert calls Lilly a model patient. “[Lilly] always takes her heart medicine, she’s done her rehab, and she walks eight miles a week,” Rippert said.
In large part, Lilly has been able to survive because she never skips her appointments with Dr. Rippert. “We see each other every six months,” said Dr. Rippert. “We check everything – she gets an EKG, and we check her cholesterol, her sugar, her liver, and her overall health. We address each of her risk factors as well.”
Each and every visit, the pair discusses Lilly’s condition, her progress, and risk factors. Together, they make decisions about the next phase of Lilly’s care and treatment. In perhaps the perfect example of their shared efforts, Dr. Rippert’s routine tests indicated that Lilly was pre-diabetic – yet another risk factor for heart disease. Dr. Rippert encouraged Lilly to bump up her exercise and add more greens to her diet. At Lilly’s next appointment six months later, her blood sugar tested within the normal range.
Between visits, Lilly checks in with Dr. Rippert to let her know if she has a health concern. “I listen to my body, and I know if something’s wrong,” said Lilly. “And Dr. Rippert listens to me. I can tell her anything.”
Both women agree that the relationship between the patient and doctor is vital to any cardiac patient’s survival and continued health. Lilly tells her friends and family to be choosy about their physicians. “Get a good doctor that makes you feel comfortable sharing what you feel.”
Lilly’s life is an inspiration for others who may be suffering from heart disease. She calls herself her own best advocate, and urges others to take control of their future health. “Don’t ignore something that feels wrong,” she said. “Tell your doctor what’s happening, even if you’re scared and don’t want to know.”
Lilly also encourages others to get regular cholesterol, blood pressure, and diabetes screenings. “The resources you need are all around you. Take advantage of free health screenings and educational opportunities in your communities.”
Dr. Rippert’s advice is simple: “Understand your own risks. Look at your family history and ask yourself what your own future could look like.” She said that many people ignore their risk factors and avoid physicians; then they’re stunned when they have a health emergency. “It’s important to have regular checkups and be part of a health system.”
“Once you get on track and do the things that start to make you better, you’ll know it,” said Lilly. “You just feel good. Your clothes fit. Your mind says, ‘Yes, this is what I need.’ It’s not a diet. It’s a plan for living.” To make an appointment with Dr. Rippert, individuals can call 302-734-1414. For a complete listing of Bayhealth cardiologists, individuals can call 1-866-Bay-Docs or visit bayhealth.org/cardiac.