I have told the story of my heart attack many times, but there is part of the story that I don’t typically share – what happened after they cleared the blood clot and inserted the stent that saved my life. I woke up in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) with a balloon inside my body (next to my heart) that had to stay in place for 24 hours to help my heart beat while it was recovering. I couldn’t sit up during this time, so they raised the bed to nearly vertical so I could be upright enough to eat. Needless to say, I was glad when the time came to remove the balloon.
Unfortunately this did not mean that I could move out of the ICU. I have low blood pressure normally, however the beta-blockers that they prescribe to heart patients post heart attack cause a decrease in blood pressure. For me this meant my blood pressure kept dropping suddenly to levels that are not safe, so I had to be kept in the ICU until they could stabilize it for a prolonged period of time. This became an ongoing struggle even after I left the hospital. They moved me from one beta-blocker to another and kept reducing the dose until I was taking the lowest possible level, and finally took me off several months later. During that time, I blacked out while at a movie at Red Rocks and had to be practically carried out from the middle of our packed row and taken to the hospital due to an unsafe drop in blood pressure. When I attempted to start working out again, I would get light headed when swimming laps.
I was released from the hospital four days after my stent, with a handful of prescriptions and a follow up appointment with a cardiologist. I was 31 years old, but with a medication regiment of 14 pills per day. I disliked the beta-blockers, but the worst medication was the blood thinner – Plavix. I was initially told that I would be required to take it for a year. So I suffered through the summer with bruises all over my body, most of which I had no idea what caused them (many times they were the result of leaning against something too hard or too long). I eagerly asked the cardiologist at my one-year mark if I could discontinue it and was awarded with the bad news that I should stay on it for another year – this continued until I was finally allowed to drop it in favor of doubling of my aspirin requirement about three years after my heart attack.
One week after my heart attack, I was back at work. I didn’t know what else to do, so I went back to my normal life and my stressful job. My boyfriend at the time had returned from his travels in South America, and never could quite grasp what I had been through in his absence because by then I was out of the hospital and looked and acted completely fine. Since the rehabilitation groups were not my “demographic” according to my doctor, I wasn’t referred to one. So there I was, a heart disease survivor at 31, with no one to talk to or understand what I was going through.
I gained weight – I was at the heaviest I had ever been in my life. I threw myself back into work, started training for another triathlon to prove to myself I could still do it, and began to pursue information about nutrition and heart health with gusto. I wanted off the medication - as soon as possible. I had always been physically active, and had started learning to cook with whole foods over processed, but there was still more to learn. I focused on learning about plant-based diets to prevent and reverse heart disease. It took a long time, and proof of my ability to maintain my LDL (bad cholesterol) around 60 before my cardiologist finally agreed that I could discontinue taking a statin.
My saving grace through all of this was the American Heart Association and the opportunity to share my story with others. I learned a lot following my heart attack – about statistics and heart attack symptoms specific to women – and I was eager to encourage other women to listen to their bodies and seek help if they noticed any symptoms (such as pain in the jaw and neck, indigestion, unusual exhaustion, etc). I feel fortunate for my second chance at life. After the initial rough patch, I finally found my footing and started changing my life for the better. I have a life-threatening blood clot to thank for that, and the recognition that this one life – this journey that is uniquely mine – is worth living in a way that supports not only my health and happiness, but leaves a positive mark on this world. For that I am grateful.