Have you ever heard Kelly Clarkson sing "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger"? There is so much truth about me in those words. Who gets breast cancer at 29, the prime of their life? Me. Who's had to witness a horrific accident after which your husband is declared brain dead? Me. Who has experienced the only redeemable thing in losing a loved one,donating his organs so others may have life? Me. Who gets breast cancer a second time? Me. Who develops congestive heart failure following chemotherapy for a second time? Me. Who lived an active, healthy life for approximately 10 years before having symptoms of congestive heart failure return? Me. Who was eventually told they needed a heart transplant in order to survive? You guessed it -- me. Now, who is living a fabulously full life filled with blessing beyond belief? That would be me!
Sometimes I have to pinch myself to fully comprehend all that has happened to me over a 17-year span. Until 1992, my life was pretty normal and uneventful. I was married, working and settling into young adulthood. Of course, I had hopes and dreams like most of my friends. However, I had no idea how different my life would turn out from what I had envisioned. Because my journey has taken many unexpected turns along the way, I have embraced the words of an unknown author: You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.
What is the meaning of "strong"? The dictionary defines strong in many ways. To me, strong is having the fight, courage and especially the tenacity to face life's challenges head on and dig deep to fight like never before. Fight for what? Fight for life! It seems as though I've been doing just that for the past 21 years. Overcoming cancer and the death of a spouse was incredibly difficult. Suffering from congestive heart failure was hard, too, but different. I have a newfound compassion for those suffering from asthma or other respiratory difficulties, because struggling to breathe is frightening and exhausting! When I was first diagnosed in 1998 with congestive heart failure, I really thought I was going to die... and soon. I was only 35 years old, lying in the ICU, struggling to breathe, too weak to even feed myself. I just wasn't ready to accept the fact that my life could be cut short. I prayed and bargained with God. I remember telling my doctors that I would amaze them, and luckily for me, I did. By grace, and through medication, rest and exercise I was able to restore my life almost back to normal. Thankfully, I had truly defied the odds!
Over the next 10 years I was able to work, run, play tennis and racquetball, travel -- you name it, I did it. I happily remarried in 2000 and become a step-mom to two young boys. Life was good -- and busy! Until the spring of 2009, everything was relatively normal. But then, my world once again came crumbling down. My congestive heart failure decided to rear its head like an angry dragon. I went from being active and strong to not being able to walk, talk and breathe all at the same time. I could not do simple daily tasks without becoming completely exhausted and short of breath. My intuition told me things probably were not good, but I had no idea truly how bad until I was admitted back into the ICU. It didn't take my doctors long to determine that my heart function was almost at a point incompatible with life. I heard them say those words I never imagined hearing: You will need a heart transplant in order to survive. "A what?", I thought. How can it be that I once gave a heart away and now I needed one to survive? I wasn't ready to die, I wanted to live, I wanted to fight, and I was determined to be strong.
On June 2, 2009, just one week after being officially placed on the National Transplant Registry, I got my "call," the call that has literally, figuratively, mentally, physically and spiritually changed my life. That is the day I underwent a heart transplant -- yes! I now have someone else's heart that beats beautifully inside my body. It may not be the heart God gave me at birth, but it's the heart that He knew I would need one day. My new heart has given me new and renewed life, and I am determined to put it to good use. Because of the generosity of a complete stranger, I am alive to share my story of strength, courage, hope and grace. My thank you list would certainly resemble that of an Oscar winner's speech. Frankly, there are not words adequate to say thank you! I believe the best thank you is to protect and preserve the gift that I have been given. I do this by running in memory of my beloved donor, and to honor my new life. She gives me the inspiration, the desire, and especially the strength. She [her heart] and I began running just six weeks post op and haven't stopped since. We've run several 5Ks and seven half marathons so far. It's been an awesome journey, and I'm presently training for our first full marathon in February and can't wait. So I guess it's true -- "What Hasn't Killed Me Has Made Me Stronger"!
Let me leave you with some food for thought: Heart disease is a real issue in our society. It is the leading cause of death in women, killing 1 in 3. That could have been me... thankfully it wasn't. Listen to your body. Know your risk factors, familiarize yourself with the signs of a heart attack and symptoms of heart disease. Those steps could help save your life.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the American Heart Association in recognition of Wear Red Day, 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.
For more inspiring stories of life with heart disease, check out the slideshow below: