Heart disease was never something I worried about. I know it's the number one killer of women, but I've always done everything "right." I exercise regularly. I maintain a healthy weight. My numbers are good, so I don't have high cholesterol or hypertension. But I do have one risk factor — my father has a history of coronary heart disease.
Despite being generally healthy, less than a year ago, I found out that I had a 99% blockage in my left anterior descending coronary artery. They call that artery "the widow maker." It's the largest coronary artery, and a blockage can cause sudden cardiac death syndrome.
Before my diagnosis, I started experiencing symptoms while exercising. I felt a burning in the back of my throat, like I ate too many jalapenos. For a while, it only happened while I was running. But it got progressively worse until it started happening when I would walk up just one flight of stairs. I knew something was wrong; this wasn't normal for me. I went to my primary care doctor, who thought it was gastric reflux disease and gave me medication. The medication didn't work. I kept experiencing the same symptoms.
I decided to go to an urgent care center nearby. I knew something was off. I just didn't feel right. They did an electrocardiogram (or EKG), and it was normal. However, the physician's assistant asked me to do her a favor. She asked me not to run over the weekend and to go see her friend, a cardiologist, the following Monday. I was concerned, but I just kept trying to rationalize it. I told myself, "You're only 51, you're a woman, your cholesterol has always been normal, you're not overweight, and you exercise regularly!"
I'm so thankful she gave me that advice. I went to see the cardiologist she recommended. He took my full history and did all the usual lab work. Everything was normal, but he was still concerned. He decided to give me a stress test. The stress test showed some small EKG changes when my heart rate went above 150. He also found some abnormal wall motion in my heart at the same heart rate. He scheduled a cardiac catheterization, a special x-ray of the heart, for the next day. During the procedure, they found the 99% blockage in my left anterior descending coronary artery and placed a stent in my heart immediately. I remember thinking, "What? Me? A blockage? A stent?" It didn't seem possible, but it was! Following the procedure, I went to cardiac rehab. It felt a little strange being the only woman in the room, as well as the youngest person.
It's been over six months since the procedure. I don't experience burning in my throat anymore, but I do have a lot of thankfulness. It's been sobering, too. I'm only 51. I had pretty minor symptoms that were initially written off as heartburn. Yet, I had a serious blockage in the biggest artery in my heart, and I survived. I'm a survivor — that's certainly sobering.
My cardiologist says I'm a miracle. He says I survived because I listened to my body and kept trying to find an answer. I encourage every other woman to do the same thing. Trust yourself and listen to your body. If something doesn't feel right, don't stop until you get an answer.
After such an experience, I think we become more aware of what's going on in our lives, versus just going through the motions. I haven't really had to make any lifestyle changes, which seems a bit odd, but I was already eating healthfully and exercising. The one thing that I am working harder to control is stress. I find myself taking everything a little more lightly, worrying less, and saying "no" more often so I can spend time with my family, which has definitely become a huge priority in my life. I have an 11-year-old daughter and find joy in everything she does! I hope to be around for her for many years to come.
The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health.