February is American Heart Month, and this Friday, February 6th, is National Wear Red Day. So in an effort to perhaps inspire some of you to wear red to promote heart health, or at least to educate you a bit about it, today I am going to stop talking about books for a minute and tell you some of my experience with heart disease.
It’s the first time I’ve put a lot of this into words, and some things I still have a lot of trouble talking about, so fair warning. Things might get dicey.
Ten months ago I had open heart surgery. I was 28.
If you asked me for a list of things that I wanted to experience before I turned 30, open heart surgery would not show up anywhere on it. First of all, surgery like that is supposed to be for old people, right? Second of all, yeah, OK, maybe I was overweight, but otherwise I was generally healthy. Right?
What happened was this. When I was born, I had a small defect in a valve of my heart. I’ve known about it since I was very young, but for a few different reasons, I stopped monitoring it when I was sixteen. I didn’t think it was particularly serious, just a heart murmur that I had to live with. What I didn’t understand was that from the minute I was born, every single beat of my heart sent a microscopic drop of blood the wrong way through my arteries–when all my blood was pumping forward, a tiny bit pumped back. Over twenty some years of beating, that wrong-way flow caused my aorta to expand, and expand, and expand. And one day, it was going to burst.
It’s called an aortic aneurysm. I had no way of knowing whether my aorta would burst in 20 years or 20 minutes, but once I found out about it I knew for sure that without intervention it would burst. And unlike a lot of cardiac events, there’s not really a lot of coming back from that. If your aorta ruptures, you bleed to death internally. Pretty damn fast. It’s not something that gets fixed after the fact. Without intervention, I pretty much knew how I was going to die.
But let’s back up a second. Because it was kind of a long journey to get from my blissful ignorance to being under the knife.
It took me a long time to learn this, but I’m glad I’ve learned it now. You absolutely have to be an advocate for your own health. You have to listen to your body and know what symptoms are. I lived my entire life with heart disease. There were signs of it getting serious for years that I never understood were signs of anything. Basically, I felt like shit for twenty eight years, and I didn’t even know it until after the fact. One of the first things I realized when I woke up from surgery was, underneath all the scary numbness and the pain of having a broken breastbone, how good I felt. Did other people feel like this all the time? How had I never known that?
I was diagnosed with high blood pressure when I was 18. I chalked that up to family history and my weight, and didn’t realize that it signified any underlying trouble. I had shortness of breath. Again: weight. I knew plenty of people of similar body types to me who could walk up stairs without sounding like a wheezing accordion, but I never put that together.
My wake-up call was a month long headache. This was the first sign of something bad that I couldn’t push aside or ignore. It was excruciating. I couldn’t sleep, I could barely drive, I wasn’t functioning at work. And I didn’t have health insurance. (One of the main reasons that I did not monitor my heart for years was that I had no health insurance. Thanks, minimum wage shit jobs.)
Finally, the pain got so bad that I had to go to a walk in clinic. I am thankful to the doctor of that clinic every day, because he listened to my heart and said “I think something is wrong.”
It took a while to get that confirmed. First, I had to find and land a job with benefits. But the minute I had a doctor, I asked for an EKG of my heart. I figured I was being overly cautious, that she would tell me I was concerned for nothing. But then I remembered that headache, and decided to err on the side of caution.
That EKG turned into an ultrasound. The ultrasound turned into a CT scan. The CT scan turned into an MRI. And at every step, people kept saying something is wrong, something is wrong, something is wrong.
So in the course of just about two years I went from thinking I was pretty healthy to undergoing major heart surgery. Once they cracked me open, the damage turned out to be even more severe than initially thought. Instead of a biological valve (aka cow intestine), I got to become a cyborg with a mechanical heart valve.
That’s often not a lot of fun. First of all, it sounds like there’s a watch in my chest. I hear my own heart beating, like a tick of a clock, constantly. Second, because blood could clot around the valve, I have to take a heavy duty blood thinner for the rest of my life. Which, frankly, sucks.
I had a long road back from surgery. An incredibly long road, which I’m still walking today. There were a lot of complications, many of which I couldn’t anticipate or plan for.
But I’m alive. I no longer have a ticking time bomb sitting in my chest. The high blood pressure is gone. I’m starting to lose weight. I can breathe so much better, when I didn’t even know before that my blood was not getting enough oxygen. My skin has changed color. (Really! Before, my circulation was so bad that I was extremely pale and often had blue lips. I’m still pretty pale, but not nearly as much). I almost never get headaches anymore, when before I had two or three a week. The good far outweighs the bad, even though sometimes it takes a while to remember it.
1 in 3 women die of heart disease and stroke. Up to 80 percent of that is preventable.
Now I am not, at all, saying that people should live in fear of heart disease, or jump into surgery. My case was rather extreme, and major surgery is of course a last result.
What I am trying to say is that, even if you don’t think you are at risk for heart disease, you should treat your heart as if you are. Because you are. There are both small and large things that you can do to improve your heart health. Cook at home as often as you can instead of eating out. Eat less salt and processed foods (it helps to get in the habit of shopping only the outer aisles of the grocery store). Get physical—do something every single day that doesn’t involve sitting on your ass watching Netflix. Take the stairs instead of the elevator at work. Teach your kids healthy habits from the moment they’re born. And be an advocate for your own health. Ask your doctor what sorts of diagnostic tests you should have at certain stages of your life. Learn the symptoms of heart disease and stroke. Listen to your body.
Respect your heart, because it does a lot of work for you. You get about 2.5 billion heartbeats in your lifetime. Make the most of them.