02/28/2012 07:27 am ET Updated Apr 30, 2012

Heart Health Month: 'I Never Expected to Become a Patient Who Needed Open Heart Surgery'

As a nurse, I am used to being in hospitals. Walking the hallways wearing my scrubs, checking vital signs, assessing patients and giving excellent nursing care was at the center of my daily routine. My patients' conditions concerned me a great deal every day. I often considered what it meant for them to live with a chronic illness or a disease. My job was to care for them and help them through their times of need -- but I never thought it would happen to me. It could never happen to me. Perhaps that's why I never expected to become a patient who needed open heart surgery.

Back in my 20s, the doctor discovered a heart murmur, but I didn't let it worry me. "I am healthy, I am fine. There's nothing wrong with me". Since I didn't feel any symptoms, I must be OK. I focused on living and caring for my family rather than thinking about my health. So I simply ignored the heart murmur and did not follow up for 13 years.

Decades later, despite having high blood pressure and experiencing shortness of breath while walking or teaching a class, I continued to be in denial that anything was wrong with me. I finally decided it was time to see the cardiologist. I was not prepared to hear what he told me. When he broke the news, my life was changed forever.

He told me that aside from the murmur, I had a more serious condition. Not only did I have a leaky valve that was allowing blood to back up into my heart, but I had also developed an aortic aneurism. The cardiologist told me I would need open heart surgery to save my life, and it needed to happen sooner rather than later.

Having an aneurysm and needing open heart surgery made me take a hard look at my own mortality. I walked around feeling like a ticking time bomb. At any moment this aneurysm could rupture, and that would be the end. The six months before the surgery were a stream of sleepless nights. Every time I closed my eyes I could see my open chest, a breathing tube, wires and cables coming from every direction in my body. I was scared like I've never been scared before. How could this be happening to me? Would something go wrong during the surgery and I would not come back into this world? And if I did come back, would I be the same again?

It wasn't until I was about to be wheeled into surgery that I finally came to terms with the inevitable. This is it. It was then I understood the fear and helplessness my patients felt when I cared for them. It was my turn to be inside the side rails of the stretcher, and my life was in the hands of the doctors and nurses who surrounded me. These were the people who, very much like me, were wearing scrubs, checking my vital signs, assessing me and giving excellent care.

One of the first things I heard after surgery were the voices of my family in the room. I opened my eyes and saw my brother's face. He made a joke about how mom was on her way -- we knew she was coming to take over the hospital. We laughed. I felt a huge relief because I knew I made it back. It was then I realized: "Yep, I've been given a second chance. Let's do it again. Let's make it count."

As I recovered for several months at home, I knew there was more to life than just marching myself where I needed to go every day. I must have a meaning, a purpose. Take this world and make it a better place for those I love and the ones coming after me. That is why I decided to volunteer with the American Heart Association. I want women to know that heart disease is real, it lives among us -- especially among those of us who don't look like we can have it. I have a seven-inch scar down my chest that reminds me of it every day.

It can happen to you, because it happened to me -- the nurse who thought heart disease was not on her list of life possibilities. I want women to learn, to take care of themselves and see their doctor NOW, instead of 13 years from now. Even if you're scared of being the patient inside the rails of the stretcher, do it today before it's too late.

These days I am not much for complaining. I am grateful; and I choose to live my gratitude through my volunteer work. Whether I am a national spokeswoman for the American Heart Association's Go Red For Women movement and Go Red Por Tu Corazón movement standing at a podium addressing an auditorium full of people, or whether I am speaking in Spanish with an elderly Dominican woman about her blood pressure checks, one thing remains constant: My heart is my biggest treasure, and as long as it's healthy, it is capable of loving the whole world one person at a time.

For more by Eva Gomez, MSN RN CPN, click here.

For more on heart disease, click here.