02/14/2013 12:27 am ET Updated Apr 15, 2013

Your Sweet Heart: A Survivor's Story

Valentine's Day. Those two words summon a lurch in my stomach and a flutter in my heart. Who among us has not suffered at least one disappointing February 14, our hearts shattered by an unappreciative or unrequited love? Some of us, however, take a broken heart to a whole other level. Literal heartbreak. I did.

Eighteen years ago, shortly before Valentine's Day, my heart began to race chaotically and erratically fast. I got light-headed, passed out and then -- I died. This is not an exaggeration. I have proof: a copy of my Medical Incident Report. Question 24 of the form asks, "Patient Condition on Arrival of First Fire Department Unit." Two answer options are provided: (1) Alive, or (2) Dead. My report has a big circle around option two. So it's official.

It still seems absurd that a vibrant and healthy woman in her 30s could literally drop dead within seconds of growing dizzy. That just doesn't happen to physically active, young people who are non-smokers. Or does it? I am here to assure you -- it happens! Much more often than most of you know. Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of natural deaths in the United States.

Living in Seattle, I received excellent first responder emergency and medical care, and was restored to a full and active life. This can be largely attributed to King County's shocking (pun intended) and exceptional 49 percent survival rate record for out-of-hospital cardiac arrests, compared to the sobering national average of around 10 percent. Almost two decades after my killer collapse, nearly 383,000 out-of-hospital sudden cardiac arrests continue to occur annually in the United States.

So on this Valentine's Day, I turn inward to my own heart and ask: What heart-healthy choices am I making these days, to make sure I'm around to enjoy many more years?

1. I put me first. Call it selfish, I don't care. If I'm going to be of use to anyone else in my life, I need to maintain the best physical and emotional shape I can. So I've moved "me" to the front of my priority line, thank you very much!

2. Girlfriends and pet companions are great medicine. Women's "tend and befriend" response to stress has been documented to release oxytocin, causing a calming effect that reduces our risk of disease by lowering our blood pressure and heart rate. The soulful gaze of a beloved dog stimulates the same response, plus the deep emotional connection to a non-judgmental creature is invaluable.

3. Portion control means I don't have to give up my favorite food. Need I say more?

4. Exercise (that I enjoy) keeps me sane and stimulated. It's the most effective thing I do to keep my heart muscle strong, pliable, and clog-free. Plus cardiovascular workouts (like power walking or bursts of spontaneous ballet across my dining room) often get my creative juices flowing: Ideas flourish when I let my oxygen-enriched brain wander.

5. No more ostrich syndrome. I've pulled my head out of the sand and faced my ignorance and denial about my aging body. Education is empowerment, especially when it comes to my health. When I have questions about chest pain or odd symptoms, I get professional help, and if trying to diagnose myself via late-night Internet browsing, I only visit accredited sites.

6. Spa treatments equal nurturing. I'll admit, I've grown too big for anyone to rock me to sleep. But a luxurious massage, facial, or pedicure feeds the child in me longing for touch, soothing, and sensuality. Despite the images we see in Viagra commercials, many people are touch-deprived. It's a need that we all long for, and creates a cascade of relaxing hormones that lower our blood pressure and calm our souls. And it just feels sooo good.

7. I know my body as well, or better, than any doctor. Trust your intuition. Find a health-care professional who supports and partners you, not patronizes you. Second and third opinions are encouraged.

8. Laugh as often and as lustily as possible. The only downside: Vigorous laughter might trump your bladder control. Absolutely everything else about it is good for you.

Nothing is more important than cherishing and understanding the amazing organ that is your heart. Honor it, pamper it, and lovingly protect it. Make this Valentine's Day a special one for your sweet heart. The one inside your chest.

Tracey Conway is an Emmy-winning actress and former writer/performer on the Comedy Central series, Almost Live! Her writing was recently published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Healthy Living Series; Heart Disease. She speaks about surviving Sudden Cardiac Arrest in her humorous program, Drop Dead Gorgeous. For more:

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