When I woke up on November 11, 2010, it was a normal day. By the time I curled into bed that night, my world had been shattered. I thought I had done everything right in my life when it came to taking care of my health. I exercised regularly, played sports, ate well, but I underestimated my family's history of heart disease and its impact on my health. In 1977, my grandfather died of cardiomyopathy, and in 2008 my mom was diagnosed with a hole in her heart, which resulted in cardiomyopathy. As the day came to a close, the reality was setting in that I was now the third generation face of heart disease in my family. While most people would never say they are thankful for having a family history of heart disease, I know that my family history and taking it seriously are the only reasons I am alive today.
I finally visited my mom's cardiologist for a preventative checkup two years after she was diagnosed. When the doctor was going through the heart disease symptom checklist, I was shocked that I was answering yes to many of his questions. He asked if I had any lightheadedness, heart palpitations, dizziness, exhaustion or nausea. I answered yes to each of those symptoms, but I assumed these were the result of my busy lifestyle. I worked full-time, was finishing my Ph.D., taking care of my little girl Annie and being the best wife I could be to Jeremy. What woman wouldn't be exhausted? Following several normal results for weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, an echocardiogram revealed that my heart was enlarged and only functioning at 10 percent. The doctor hung his head with sadness when he told me the news. The words heart failure stung my ears as I tried to understand my diagnosis.
After I cried a river of tears and the shock settled in, I told myself that I had to pick myself back up and move forward. I wasn't the first woman to be diagnosed with heart disease and sadly I wouldn't be the last. Seven months after my diagnosis, my heart function only had improved to 18 percent and it was now onto step two. I had surgery to get an Implanted Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD) in my chest, which would help me survive sudden cardiac death. Just shy of one-year post ICD surgery, I was officially being tracked as a heart transplant patient. Sometimes it seems unreal that at age 32, I need a new heart. This reality serves as a reminder that you can be the perfect picture of health and still have heart disease.
Heart disease doesn't just impact me. It impacts my entire family. One night, while I was putting my Annie to bed, she looked up at me with her big brown eyes and said, "Mommy, tomorrow we can go to Build-a-Bear and get you a new heart. I'll rub it, kiss it and then you can have a new heart so you won't be sick anymore." Things are just that easy in the mind of a four-year-old. If only that was true. For my husband, he lives with the fear that every unknown number that calls his phone is the one saying that his wife has gone into cardiac arrest.
What I have learned about my heart condition is that not too long ago, my diagnosis had limited forms of treatment; technology and medicine have progressed so quickly because of the American Heart Association that I now have a chance to pick out Annie's wedding dress with her one day; leading a healthy lifestyle all my life likely contributed to saving my life; and I can now be an advocate for other women. There are some other things I definitely know for sure:
• Because of research by the American Heart Association, I am here today.
• Because of the American Heart Association, the ICD in my chest is the size of a pager rather than having to be in my abdomen like years past.
• Because of the Go Red for Women campaign, I am not alone in this fight.
• Because of the Go Red for Women campaign, together we can stop the number one killer of women.
One day, I will be the recipient of a new heart because of the research done by the American Heart Association. I will be able to run, swim, rock a grandchild and continue fighting this fight against heart disease. The face of heart disease can be deceiving; do not let this silent killer deceive you.
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.