This simple, yet profound quote from the incredible Maya Angelou best sums up my personal journey since surviving a heart attack at the age of 50 in May of 2012. As many people who have had a near-death experience, those incidents can give you an intense focus on life but it can also make you very introspective about yourself, perhaps as a way of self-preservation.
What I have learned in the six years since that day has not only helped me but thousands of other women who have given me the opportunity to share my story with them. The biggest lesson I have learned is that I wasn't alone and there are many, many more women walking the same path I did and they don't know it yet.
Despite growing up in a family where heart disease was all too familiar among the males, I admit that pretty much everything I thought I knew about heart disease was from a man's perspective. Now, this isn't to disparage the men in our lives, it's just a simple fact. Most of the education, awareness and research for the past 100 years have been dedicated to men. This is despite the fact that more women than men have been dying from this largely preventable disease since 1983. Back in the day when I was a marketing manager for the American Red Cross, the conversations about gender-specific symptoms for heart attack were just beginning. Even though I had warning signs, and several other health issues plaguing me at the same, I was under-diagnosed as I kept looking for the symptoms my dad had or what I had learned in CPR class. I didn't ignore the symptoms, I simply didn't recognize them. Now, on this side of the event, I know better.
In the time leading up to "the episode" - as we called it in the early days around our young grandchildren - there were a few things that I learned that I frequently share with women.
1. Nutrition - While we were trying to follow a healthy diet, we were busy empty-nesters and began eating out more than usual. Growing up,my mom always watched our sodium because of my dad, but I didn't know how much added sugar was in everything we were consuming today. The Standard American Diet (SAD) is at the heart (pun intended) of so many health issues. The quick and easy fast, convenient and processed foods helped me put on the extra weight that seem to come out of nowhere. My biggest vice? Sodas. I didn't understand my addiction to them and, even though I had cut way back on them and was drinking water after consuming one, I know now I was feeding the very inflammation that would eventually lead to struggles with weight gain, borderline high cholesterol, arthritis, fybromyalgia and, finally, the heart attack that almost claimed my life much too soon. Now that I know better, nutrition for me is a way of life!
2. Fitness - To tell a woman with chronic fatigue that the only way she is going to overcome this malady is to get moving was like telling me to jump off a building to learn to fly. For most of my life, I was very active. Then, I found myself sitting at work more ... and more. As the inflammation continued to build, movement became unbearable ... sitting or standing was unbearable ... lying down was unbearable. Just doing housework depleted energy supplies. I knew I was in trouble when I couldn't sing because the shortness of breath and debilitating fatigue. While we know that exercise is important, what I didn't know is that the body has the power to heal itself and THIS is the secret weapon!
3. Symptoms specific to women - After my heart attack, I spent months researching women's heart health. I was on a quest to understand how I didn't see the warning signs and why it is obvious that hundreds of thousands of women also don't and continue to die each year from heart disease. In addition to chronic fatigue, shortness of breath, pain the neck, shoulders and back, pressure in the chest and sudden dizziness, pay attention to these warning signs in women. I had them ALL!
* Inability to sleep
*Extreme, constant stress
* Frequent heartburn, GERD
* Depression or Anxiety
* Early menopause
* Vitamin D deficiency
* Elevated C-reactive Protein
4. Get SCREENED! - At the time of my cardiac event, my numbers were "borderline." I was on a beta blocker, not because my blood pressure was high but because it was what was termed "roller coaster blood pressure." With a mild case of mitral valve prolapse diagnosed in my late 30's, this had helped me immensely and through good prevention habits, I had managed to keep that issue under control for about 10 years. My cholesterol was in the range of being controlled by diet and exercise. Other than needing to lose about 20 pounds, my biggest risk factor was a long family history of early heart disease. (If you don't know your family history, today you can get a test to tell you if you are at risk.)
Basic heart health screenings are a great tool to BEGIN the discussion about heart disease. Knowing your risk factors - YOUR numbers - is step one. Depending upon your age and your risk assessment, there is more that you can do. If you are over 40 years of age, with at least one risk factor for heart disease (especially family history), then your next conversation with your doctor needs to be about an advance screening called Coronary Artery Calcium Scoring. To learn more about it, watch the documentary, "The Widowmaker" on our home page.
This is a non-invasive, quick and affordable screening. It will take you longer to fill out the paperwork than the actual screening takes but, within 10 minutes, you will see what's going on in your heart rather than rely on an educated guess. You see, you can have acceptable numbers and still have a heart attack. It simply doesn't tell you, as Paul Harvey said back in my day, "The rest of the story."
When you know what YOUR risk is for heart disease, then YOU and your health care provider can create a plan of action that will help you prevent heart attack, stroke and premature death. After I learned that 80% of those of us who have heart attacks before the age of 65 don't survive the first one, I became laser-focused in making sure that every eligible woman and man I meet knows about this life-saving screening. It's why I still have my precious husband with me today.
"We do the best we can until we know better. Then when you know better, you do better."
Wise words. Now, you know.