Since my computer issues at work kept me from posting the last Heart Health post, I’ve decided to just stretch it out over this week to close out the Heart Health series.
Thanks to everyone who read, learned, and enjoyed this – I had so much fun putting the posts together, and I learned a lot, too.
This week’s lunchtime posts will all be survivor stories.
First up? Michelle.
Eleven years ago, Michelle was eating dinner with her family when she found out that her next meal would be at the hospital. She needed surgery and she needed it right away.
‘”Michelle, your heart is in terrible shape,” her doctor told her over the phone. “You need to be at the hospital tomorrow at 7 a.m. and be prepared to stay awhile.’”
Exhaustion had sent Michelle, then 32, to the doctor a few months before. She couldn’t get through the days. “’You’ve got three young children,” her doctor told her. “Everybody’s tired.”
Michelle’s sister Shari had died of heart disease at age 19. “Despite my family history, no one considered that I might have heart disease – not even me. Before Shari died, the philosophy was, ‘you’re young, you’re female and you’ll be OK.’”
A few months after she visited the doctor in 1997, Michelle passed out sitting in church. “My husband got me a donut and I thought I was fine.” But Michelle returned to a different doctor for tests at a friend’s urging, and the dinnertime call delivered the blow. She had cardiomyopathy, a serious disease in which the heart muscle becomes inflamed and doesn’t work as well as it should. It can also cause arrhythmias, abnormal heartbeats that make the heart pump less effectively. Most arrhythmias aren’t life-threatening, but some are extremely dangerous and require treatment and management. Michelle’s would.
“My husband and I sat in the kitchen and cried,” she said. Then Michelle had to call her parents. “They had already lost a daughter. To tell them that I was going in the hospital the next day was very, very hard to do.” Michelle was in the hospital for 10 days. Doctors implanted her with an internal cardiac defibrillator (ICD), would deliever an electrical shock if her heart went into a dangerous rhythm.
A few days after she got out of the hospital, Michelle was trying to get back to her everyday life. But at a birthday party with her five-year-old she slipped away to the bathroom and sat on the floor and cried. All she could think about were the celebrations she’d miss. “I thought I had less than five years to live. My thoughts were that I wanted to raise my children, I wanted to grow old with my husband and I wanted to be there for my parents. ”
Today, 11 years later, Michelle has watched her children blow out the candles on every birthday cake. The ICD implant was only the start of the changes in her life. Before her diagnosis, Michelle would eat the crusts off her kids’ peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and stay up late to do an extra load of laundry instead of exercising. Getting healthier also took a commitment to take care of herself.
“I thought that the best way to take care of my kids was to always put them first. I
liked to eat healthy foods and I liked to exercise, but I didn’t make those things a priority,” Michelle said. “I love my children with my whole heart, but I’ve found that the way to put them first is to take care of myself.”Most days she exercises, including walking, doing pilates and weight lifting. “I don’t work exercise around my life,” she said. “I work my life around my exercise.” Michelle also needs time to rest. “I can’t go to Six Flags all day, but I’m able to enjoy life – and I’m thankful for every single day.”
With the “sisterhood” of the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women movement, Michelle said she has become part of a supportive network that has taught her to love her heart and take aggressive steps to protect it. “When I was diagnosed, I thought I was the only young woman with heart disease. Standing with others who are newly diagnosed or who have risk factors helps women realize that they are not alone. There’s power in numbers. There’s power in friendship.”
Michelle’s advice: “Don’t be afraid to go to the doctor. Listen to your body. Don’t ignore your symptoms. You are the expert on you. If you have fears or questions or you’re not feeling well, get it checked out.”
Michelle – Chesterfield, MO
Age at time of event: 32