In Honor of National Heart Month

dreamstime_l_27599997.jpgdreamstime_l_53101306dreamstime_l_61239170.jpgThe heart is symbolic of love, romance, and Valentine’s Day. Our beating heart is responsible for our very existence, sustenance and vitality. It is sobering to realize that a baby’s heart starts beating 18 days from conception or about 3 to 4 weeks. On ultrasound, a baby’s heart is audible at approximately 8 weeks. Just think that from that very early onset, the human heart will beat more than 2.5 billion times in an average lifetime.

The heart beats day in and day out in spite of ourselves, and to be honest, most of us take this miraculous occurrence for granted. We don’t have to will our hearts to beat, we don’t have to cajole or beg it to beat, thankfully, it just beats. As we age, habits, genetics, and even the environment begin to weigh in corrupting our very being. The American Heart Association and CDC states that heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States; as a matter of fact, one in four women dies from heart disease.

Coronary Heart Disease or CHD is a disease in which plaque builds up on the inner walls of the coronary arteries. The coronary arteries carry oxygen rich blood to the heart. Atherosclerosis or this buildup of plaque restricts the flow of blood to the heart. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other byproducts found in the blood. Over time this plaque can harden and/or break open forming blood clots on its surface. The blood clots can become lodged in a smaller vessel preventing oxygen rich blood from reaching its intended target. Angina which manifests as chest pain or discomfort and/or a heart attack and/or stroke can be the end result.

Being an educated Registered Nurse, I thought I knew all of this. I knew the symptoms and I knew the role genetics, diet and exercise plays in the formation of heart disease so I made sure my diet, I was a vegetarian, my exercise, I exercised actively 4 to 5 times a week, and my genetics, oh well there was nothing I could do about that, were all under control. I was so educated that I failed to recognize not one but two angina episodes. I was not able to connect the dots and recognize that I was having heart related symptoms. I chalked it up to a vagal response caused by constipation, other women have contributed their symptoms to having the flu. The fact that I was sweating profusely, had severe chest discomfort, and was praying for death escaped me. So much for my education! When it’s happening to you, sometimes education gets in the way.

Fast forward to that day in my cardiologists office when , in spite of a normal EKG, echocardiogram and physical examination, my doctor recommended that I have a CT calcium scoring test. I made the appointment for this totally non-invasive 10 minute procedure and received the shock of my life when it revealed that I had a blockage in one of my coronary arteries.

The good news is that after undergoing a cardiac catheterization where a stent was placed in the offending artery to open the pathway, I feel great. I am back in the gym, back to paying attention to my diet and exercise but most of all paying careful attention to my body. Gone are the “how did this

happen?” and “why did this happen?thoughts that initially drove me crazy. Like with all unexplained phenomenon in life, it just happens. The takeaway for me is that we need to be mindful of our bodies, investigate any changes that are outside of the “norm” and advocate for our own health. It is a known fact that women experiencing a cardiac episode may present differently than their male counterparts; shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, jaw or back pain or pain or discomfort in one or both arms for example, so if you feel something is wrong, dial 911 and don’t take no for an answer. The life you save may be your own.

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