My parents were heartbroken when they were told that I had heart disease. I was only three months old. Doctors diagnosed me with cardiomyopathy and didn't expect me to live past my second birthday.
My family did an incredible job taking care of me and making sure that my health was a priority. Unfortunately as a young adult, I allowed my normal outward appearance to deceive me. When I left for college, it was my responsibility to get my medication filled and take it. There was no one there to remind me each morning, make doctor appointments, or inquire about my symptoms. I was so busy having a social life that I neglected my heart. This neglect caught up with me during my sophomore year. One day in class, I felt nauseous and short of breath. I assumed that I was having an asthma attack, even though I knew I had heart disease. I rode the bus all the way across campus to the university clinic. The next thing I knew, I was in an ambulance and rushed to the emergency room.
I had experienced a heart attack, and I was only 19 years old. Doctors explained that they had also discovered a potentially fatal blood clot in my heart. But that wasn't even the worst news I heard that day: because of the stress it would put on my heart, I was advised to never carry children. This news was devastating, and I felt like heart disease had stolen a piece of my future.
As the years passed, my heart deteriorated. In my mid-20s, a defibrillator was implanted after medical tests showed that I was at a high risk of "sudden cardiac death."
A lifetime of heart disease threatened to steal my spirit and fight. Fortunately, I met my future husband on an airplane shortly after my surgery, and he chose to love me despite my wavering health and uncertain future.
After we were married, we really wanted to start a family. But pregnancy was out of the question. My unstable health also greatly reduced the chances of being accepted as an adoptive mother. Just when I was ready to give up on my dream of having children, my younger sister made an incredible offer: she would serve as a surrogate, giving birth to my child. And as it turned out, she didn't just give birth to one; she delivered twins. What an incredible gift from the heart!
But when the twins were not even two years old, my health began to deteriorate rapidly, leaving me unable to carry my children or even do simple tasks around the house. My heart was working too hard to just keep me alive. I visited the cardiologist, and I was told I had exhausted all options - my only choice was a heart transplant.
I received my new heart on New Year's Day 2009. Before the surgery, I told my family goodbye, not knowing if it would be for the last time. Even though I was scared, I was confident it was the right decision -- and a successful heart transplant proved it.
Now 36, my life is living proof that heart disease doesn't have to end someone's life. Women with heart disease can still achieve their dreams, and that's something I want other women to know.
I am a survivor, but many women don't ever have the chance to fight or prevent heart disease. It is the No. 1 killer of women in the United States. As mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and friends, we must make our health a priority. We're worth it, and we cannot do the things that we are passionate about unless we stay healthy and strong.
In May 2011, I became a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women movement. What an amazing feeling of redemption after more than 30 years with heart disease! It is very empowering to be able to educate women about the signs, symptoms and truths associated with heart disease. I know I am not alone.
I am grateful that I can share the undeniable difference between living with heart disease and now living with a healthy heart. My perception of what healthy is has been forever changed. When I was struggling with heart failure, I was constantly tired, weak, short of breath, dizzy, nauseous, and just physically and emotionally exhausted. The difference after my transplant was almost immediate. I have energy, circulation, strength and enough endurance to run half marathon in two weeks! The before and after picture of my life with and without heart disease should be a reminder to women that it is worth the effort to know your family history, your numbers, visit your doctor, stay active and listen to your body.
I have made a commitment to my donor's family, my friends, my family and myself. I will take care of this precious heart. I am proud to wear red as a reminder of the many wonderful things in my life and to encourage other women to do the same. I Go Red for my parents, siblings, husband, my sweet red-headed baby girl, and my spirited and splendid little boy. They deserve to have a daughter, sister, wife, and mommy who is healthy and happy and lives for all of her dreams.