Inside the Courts

A Charlotte judge recovers after open heart surgery

On Sunday morning, the phone at Lisa Bell’s home rang a little after 8. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer on the other end of the line needed a court order to “track and trace” the cell phone of the suspected murderer of Amanda Strous.

That’s a routine request for a Superior Court judge to get.

But it wasn’t a routine Lisa Bell who signed it. The 49-year-old jurist was less than two weeks removed from open-heart surgery.

On June 6, Bell underwent a three hour and 45 minute operation to replace a defective aortic valve and replace a damaged portion of the aorta itself. The condition – bicuspid aortic valve disease – was diagnosed when Bell was a teenager. She was born with the problem and had lived with it for more than 25 years.

And then one morning her heart said no mas.

On May 5, Bell awoke felling like something or someone was sitting on her chest. She had trouble breathing. She thought she could be having a heart attack.

At first glance, Bell would appear to be an unusual candidate for cardiac arrest. Over the past four years, her enhanced physical regimen has included two half-marathons and a number of triathlons. A few days before she awoke breathless and in pain, Bell had taken a 32-mile bike ride.

Heart disease, though, runs in her family. The problem with her valve – the aorta is the I-77 of blood flow – made her heart work significant harder to do its job. But the heart and its largest artery were swelling, increasing the odds of ruptures, internal bleeding or worse.

In recent months, the warning signs were there – a gradual decrease in her endurance, problems catching her breath at the pool or after climbs on her bike. But judges always know best. “I was thinking I was invincible,” she says.

And then she learned otherwise. Now, Bell has a scar on her chest and a new valve courtesy of a pig. She says she spends a lot of time napping while her docs adjust her medication to raise her blood pressure, which is about right for an Olympic marathoner but way too low for a sitting judge. For now, standing makes her feel faint.

Bell is not expected to rejoin to the bench until early August. A spokeswoman for the state Administrative Office of Courts says judges will be brought in from neighboring counties to cover her caseload.

In the month leading up to her operation, the judge didn’t tell many people outside of her family what was about to happen. That gave Bell and her teenage daughter, whom the divorced single mom adopted as an infant, plenty of time to talk – about risks and fears and the fragility of tomorrow’s plans.

“For 14 years it’s been just you and me,” the daughter told her. “I don’t want it to be just me.”

Now it won’t.

Meanwhile, the order she signed on Sunday within days led to the arrest of an accused killer. The wheels of justice grind on.

A little later this summer, Bell will return to the front of her courtroom. When she can put her heart back into it.