02/27/2013 08:38 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Heart Health Story: I Underwent Open-Heart Surgery at 20

When you think back on your college years, open heart surgery probably is not one of the things that comes to mind. Unfortunately for me, it is. I was a young, energetic college athlete who learned the hard way that heart disease does not discriminate. My story is a cautionary tale to all women that listening to your body and seeking help when necessary is important at any age.

I was excited to be entering my junior year of college at the University of Kentucky; I was in the middle of my dance team practice when I started to experience chest pains and shortness of breath. I had danced my whole life and had never felt this type of pain before. It felt like a huge brick lying on my chest. As athletes, we are taught to push through the pain, and that is exactly what I did. I knew something didn't feel right, but I did not want to look weak in front of my coach or teammates, so I continued to push myself to the limit. Little did I know, it was a limit not to be pushed.

After practice, the symptoms persisted -- and got worse. I thought I was overreacting and thought I could sleep away the pain. The pain continued through the night and into the morning. My mom was very adamant about me going to the emergency room, but it wasn't until I received a firm phone call from my dad that I decided to go to the emergency room.

After a visit to the emergency room, followed by an appointment with a cardiologist, my life would soon take an unexpected turn. I was diagnosed with a rare congenital heart defect that was causing my heart valve to leak severely and enlarged my heart twice the normal size. My only choice to repair the damage was open-heart surgery. I was just 19 years old at the time, and I felt like my life was turned upside down.

Six weeks after my initial visit, I underwent open-heart surgery at the age of 20. Although my heart was successfully repaired, I had to take the semester off of school, the dance team, and had to move back home to be with my family and begin the long rehab process.

My rehab included not only rebuilding my physical strength, but also my emotional strength. Because I was so young, I didn't know others my age who I could relate to. And the idea of heart disease was completely foreign to my friends. I actually hated Facebook during that time -- what college kid says that?! I was stuck at home recovering, and all I could see were people having the time of their lives.

But I got through it; it was my only option. Once I returned to school, I was determined to make up for lost time, I eventually rejoined the dance team and managed to finish college in just four years -- an amazing accomplishment considering I had taken a full semester off.

My journey has been quite a roller coaster ride. What has helped me the most to get through it all is the support I have found through the American Heart Association. If it were not for the American Heart Association, my story would be completely different. The AHA funded the developer of the heart-lung machine, a machine that kept me alive while my heart was completely stopped for six hours. Because of the impact funds raised by the AHA have had on my life, I have rallied to my legislators at the state and national capitols to urge them to not cut funding for the National Institute of Health.

This work is so important because people do not look at heart disease as something that young people have -- especially young women. Heart disease kills more women than all forms of cancer combined. We may think we have a perfect bill of health, but heart disease can still happen to you -- it happened to me. It is a silent killer, and we must be more aware of our hearts.

The doctors told me that it was just a matter of time before I would have become a statistic. But I am not a statistic; I am a survivor. And I urge you all to take care of yourselves, take care of your heart, and encourage every woman you know to Go Red.

For more on heart disease, click here.