One person dies every 34 seconds in the U.S. from cardiovascular disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and this means each of us has to be mindful of our heart health so that we are not one of them.
I firmly believe we all need to be mindful of our overall health. Being overweight, having out-of-control diabetes and other medical issues can lead to heart attacks, strokes and other maladies.
Shortly after Thanksgiving of 2021, a few months before my 63rd birthday, I was waiting at a red light in suburban Philadelphia when I felt a tingling sensation up and down my left arm. It was so startling that I called a close friend and asked him, “Isn’t this a heart attack symptom?”
We talked about it for a few minutes, but then my attention was diverted back to my errands. A few weeks later, shortly before the December holidays, I was having lunch with my sister and I had bad heartburn.
Around the same time, I got my COVID-19 booster shot, and over the next few weeks, I started to experience what I thought were flulike symptoms: nausea, cold sweats, fatigue and overall malaise.
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I ignored the warning signs
According to the CDC, heart attack symptoms in men and women include chest pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, back, arm or shoulder, and feeling nauseous, lightheaded or unusually tired. I am not alone in ignoring these warning signs.
I was extremely busy. A close family member had endured a hospital stay after spinal surgery, and I was focused on her recovery; on my many caretaking roles, including my role as a single mother of a teenage son; and on my never-ending deadlines and all the responsibilities piling higher on my plate.
So I ignored all of the warning signs until I got nauseous and started having massive chest pains during a night out at the theater with a friend in early January. She rushed me to the nearest emergency room.
The CDC reports that annually, one in every five deaths is caused by a heart attack: a staggering 697,000 people. And I came dangerously close to being one of them. I felt completely blindsided by all of this.
Both sides of my family have a history of heart disease: My father died of a second heart attack at age 57 (his first was in his mid-40s), and my mother had major heart surgery later in life.
Even so, I did not know how important it was to make an appointment with a cardiologist, and my internist never suggested any preliminary tests. I was also unaware that heart disease is the leading cause of death for women.
When I arrived at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, I was terrified. Since this was during COVID restrictions, my friend was not allowed to stay with me, and everything in the ER triage unit happened rapidly.
My electrocardiogram revealed that one of my arteries was 99% blocked and that I had additional blockages. I went from having a battery of tests to being operated on within about 20 minutes.
While I was shivering on the operating table in the chilly cardiac catheterization lab and in a medicated haze, all I could think of was to pray that the doctors and God would keep me alive for myself and for Adam, my 17-year-old son with autism, who relies on me for a majority of his daily needs.
I remember saying aloud, “I am not done. I need to care for Adam. We have so many adventures left to share.” In all, I had three stents placed in the arteries of my heart, and I was told that I had to make major changes to many aspects of my life if I wanted to prevent future heart attacks and other major medical issues.
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Life after my heart attack
Although I had top-notch care from the doctors and nurses, going home was frightening. Medical professionals say that everyone handles this fear and ensuing depression differently. Still, it is vital that being worried does not make me feel unmotivated to make daily heart-healthy choices in every aspect of my life.
I was extremely sad that I had to miss my son’s 16th birthday because I was in the hospital. However, the nurses kept reassuring me, “Just tell Adam you will be there for his 17th birthday to celebrate … and other birthdays, as well.”
I am mindful that I am often the caretaker, and after leaving the hospital feeling weak, vulnerable and overwhelmed, I would need to rely on friends and neighbors to regain my strength.
A little more than a year later — my 64th birthday — as I continue on my road to recovery, I see my heart attack as a wake-up call, and I continue to make significant life changes. Each day I work diligently to have a healthy mind-set, diet, stress level, exercise routine and everything else. I am doing this to keep thriving.
During my six-month checkup, my cardiologist, Dr. Kevin Steinberg, told me that my test results revealed that my heart muscle function had returned 100%, another gift I do not take lightly. But, of course, the fact that I acted quickly during the heart attack and was a few minutes away from a leading heart hospital was all in my favor.
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Since my heart attack, I have made many significant positive changes. I took a guided meditation course with breathing exercises. I attended and completed cardiac rehab classes, checked my blood sugar daily without fail, wrote down everything I ate and practiced portion control. As a result, I lost and kept off 27 pounds, but I am not finished with any of this.
Dr. Steinberg has taught me that heart disease involves two problems – one you can control, such as exercising regularly, not smoking, and eating healthy foods every day, and the part you can’t control which is genetics.
He urges his cardiology and obesity patients to take small steps with the long-term goal of a healthy life and ensure they are not ignoring a medical problem because now is the right time to stay on top of their health.
I am still a caretaker. I enjoy looking out for my son, sisters, friends and neighbors. But I also have learned to put on my so-called oxygen mask first and then secure my child’s. I know that every day and every moment is a treasured gift, and it is not a gift I want to take for granted.
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7 heart-healthy tips from a cardiologist
These tips are from Dr. Kevin Steinberg, clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, Pennsylvania Hospital Interventional Cardiology:
- Make heart-healthy changes and maintain them daily. This starts with positive first steps.
- Listen to your body: Only you know when something doesn’t feel right. Don’t ignore even the mildest symptoms. If you have concerns, talk to your healthcare provider. If you think something is wrong, don’t wait; timing matters.
- Make exercise a regular part of your life: Engage in moderate-intensity cardio exercise with a goal of five days a week and weight-bearing exercise twice weekly. Regular exercise keeps you more in tune with your body which can help you recognize even the most subtle symptoms.
- Practice healthy eating habits: The Mediterranean Diet is ideal for a heart-healthy regime. (If you indulge during a holiday or your birthday, go back to your healthy eating plan the next day; you have not ruined the entire plan by indulging during one or two memorable occasions).
- Maintain a healthy weight: Get weight loss help if you need it. Being overweight and obese are major concerns in the U.S.
- Manage stress and get enough sleep: Most of us need 7-8 hours each night.
- Be mindful of heart disease risk factors: High blood pressure, bad cholesterol, smoking, overweight or obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Make regular visits to your healthcare provider.
Debra Wallace is a multi-award-winning professional journalist, author, editor, social media/web content provider, and autism advocate with 20+ years of experience. She regularly contributes to Parade.com, Orlando Family Fun, South Jersey, Monsters & Critics, Delaware Today, and several other print and digital publications. Her expertise includes celebrity profiles, entertainment, local heroes, health/wellness, special needs parenting, and autism advocacy. Wallace is a devoted single mother to her 17-year-old son, Adam.
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, ©2023 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
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