My name is Julie.
I am a wife.
I am a mother.
I am an athlete.
I am a nurse practitioner.
And I am surviving heart disease.
In July of 2009, I arrived at the hospital with a joyous expectation of meeting my second son. My husband and I set multiple alarms to ensure we weren't a second late for my pre-operative time slot. My cesarean section was scheduled, and I anticipated that our baby's delivery would be just as smooth as our eldest son's just 20 months prior.
It was not long into the surgery that I began feeling strange and not well. My heart felt as it was doing round-off back handsprings inside of my chest. All the voices of those in the operating room faded into the background. As a nurse who worked in the pediatric intensive care unit for years, my first instinct was to gaze at the cardiac monitor to see if my vital signs were stable. I remember thinking to myself, as I watched my heart go into a bad arrhythmia, "Wow, they might actually give me CPR before this procedure is done."
Fast forward through a thankfully, blessed and safe delivery of my son, hours of monitoring and multiple cardiovascular testing procedures... I finally had the opportunity to hold my baby boy. I was told that my heart was likely okay, but that I should follow up with the cardiologist in six weeks.
I did return for that appointment, and once again, I had an echocardiogram, or ultrasound, of my heart. I shared with my cardiologist that I remained short of breath climbing a flight of stairs as if I was still 38 weeks pregnant. I was also experiencing dizziness while unloading the dishwasher and taking a warm shower. Those symptoms could be explained by many things, such as simply being out of shape from the pregnancy and dehydration. Yet, the phone call I received later that same afternoon confirmed something I never dreamed I would face. It was the words of my cardiologist's voice echoing on the other end of the line that made my heart sink into my chest. "Julie, your heart is failing."
Wait... I'm 32 years old... Didn't I just run the Boston Marathon a couple of years ago? Didn't I just turn down the oh-so-delicious fried chicken and French fries for the baked chicken with steamed vegetables? Okay, I may not take my vitamins daily, but, "Really, doc? I think you are looking at the wrong girl's chart." I may not have really responded in that manner. I believe my true response was displayed as I wiped the tears from my face and held my 6-week-old newborn.
I was officially diagnosed with cardiomyopathy. Heart failure. Within the ensuing month, I had a defibrillator implanted into my chest wall because my arrhythmia also proved to be life threatening. I learned firsthand that every breath, every single heart beat is a gift.
I've learned that each day is a blessing. Upon my initial diagnosis, I didn't know how long I would be my children's mommy or how much I would get to experience alongside my boys as they grew and learned new things. I still don't know this answer. But, I will tell you that getting to walk my oldest son into kindergarten this year was an AMAZING celebration.
Throughout my entire nursing career, I have worked to care for children born with congenital heart defects. I am passionate about coming along side families as they journey a tough road. I am often blessed with opportunities to share my own story with patients and their families. As a health care professional, I enjoy the ability to relate to my patients and their families as we live real life with real challenges and face the many unknowns.
I have also grown in my passion for the women in my life. Heart disease does not discriminate. As women and mothers, I believe that we are more likely to take our children to their pediatricians for runny noses and ear infections than we are to realize that we have become more short of breath over the past month. Because heart disease affects one out of every three women, we do not have to look past the Thanksgiving dinner table or Girls-Night-Out gatherings to see the face of heart disease. Ladies, we need to take the time and energy to be proactive in taking charge of our health. For goodness sake, I worked in the field of cardiology for years before I faced my own diagnosis, and I surely never dreamed that I would be affected by heart disease. So ladies, go get checked! Know your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers. And, as you learn your own numbers, empower yourselves with what to do with those numbers.
Every morning, we wake up, brush our teeth and look at ourselves in the mirror as we get ready. As I look in the mirror, I see the face of heart disease. What do you see?
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the American Heart Association in recognition of National Wear Red Day (February 7, 2014), the aim of which is to raise awareness that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. To read all the stories in the series, click here. And to follow the conversation on Twitter -- and share a picture of yourself wearing red -- find the hashtag #RedSelfie.