Holly Pritchard is a wife, a mother of two boys, a librarian and a volunteer at her church. Recently, just weeks after a procedure at the MGH, she spent hours carefully penning Christmas cards to U.S. military veterans. Still, Pritchard says, that is not the only message she needs to deliver this holiday season. “I want people to know that hope is alive at Mass General for every survivor of sexual abuse who may need compassionate medical treatment.”

Now 54, Pritchard says she was just 8 years old when she was sexually abused. The assaults continued for several years before her abuser would finally admit his guilt.

She says extensive counseling helped lessen her emotional pain, but as Pritchard entered adulthood, a flare-up of both psychological and physical pain occurred, due to several medical conditions.

“Nearly 10 years ago I was dealing with chronic endometrial infections and an irregular heartbeat,” says Pritchard. “My trusted local OB/GYN provided exceptional care, but repeat pelvic exams would sometimes leave me screaming into a pillow the pain was so deep. And when I had to make trips to the emergency room with an irregular heartbeat, my condition was often dismissed as a panic attack given the trauma of my past.”

Pritchard began to seek out specialty care at the MGH. She was first referred to MGH Cardiology, where she says doctors quickly realized that anxiety was not the cause of her physical symptoms. Diagnosed with both a congenital heart defect and atrial fibrillation, she now sees both Leon Ptaszek, MD, PhD, of the Cardiac Arrhythmia Service and Amy Spooner, MD, of Clinical Cardiology.

“You hear about complex medical care – but life is complex too. I hope my story encourages other women to take their next step toward being well.”
-Holly Pritchard

Ptaszek says symptoms associated with arrhythmia often tend to overlap with those associated with anxiety. “Teasing the two apart takes a lot of careful listening,” he says.

“When I met Holly, I was made aware of the abuse in her past and knew we would need to be sensitive to both her physical and emotional needs,” says Spooner. “We’ve managed her medical conditions – but moreover I feel her quality of life has improved in the last decade because she feels reassured she’s in a safe space here at MGH.”

More recently, Pritchard has turned to MGH Obstetrics and Gynecology in an effort to resolve years of endometrial pain and bleeding.

“When patients like Holly are brought in, even small things like allowing the patient to remain fully dressed during appointments are important to us,” says Thuy Tien Ly, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist at MGH. “Many survivors of sexual abuse cannot tolerate in-office procedures like biopsies. For Holly, we knew that it would be better to bring her straight to the operating room for a diagnostic biopsy of her uterus.”

Ly adds that in Pritchard’s case, close coordination with Cardiology also is a priority during any procedures involving general anesthesia. “We monitor her closely for any cardiac issues, and there are cardiologists standing by should she run into any trouble,” says Spooner.

That team approach was also employed last month, as Pritchard underwent a hysterectomy aimed at removing extensive uterine scarring and improving her quality of life. Pritchard says she is feeling well after the procedure.

“You hear about complex medical care – but life is complex too,” says Pritchard. “I hope my story encourages other women to take their next step toward being well.”