Heart disease can be a surprise. Most people don't anticipate having heart disease, particularly not at the young age I did, 49. I was a teacher. I was fit, was not obese, had never smoked and had only the occasional drink. I was the most stunned person in the world when an ER physician told me I was having a heart attack. One day I came home from school and began experiencing terrible back pain in the middle of the right side of my back. It became more severe until it was a relentless stabbing pain. I was trying anything to make the pain go away: a heating pad, lying on the floor, sitting in the chair, anything. My husband kept urging me to call my doctor or let him take me to the ER. I resisted, thinking the pain would subside. It continued for almost four hours.
About midnight, he said, "We are going to the emergency room." "For a backache, seriously? They'll laugh me out of there," I replied. They didn't. They admitted me to the hospital and the next day did an angiogram, which revealed two main primary arteries to my heart were 90 percent blocked. They took me immediately to do an angioplasty and stent placement. The blockage was unusually elongated, so they chose to put in an extra-long stent. It collapsed in the middle of the night as I lay in the ICU and I had another heart attack. By morning, they'd brought in a surgeon and had to perform double bypass. However, I did not get better because I was left with congestive heart failure. Subsequently I experienced two additional heart attacks.
After one additional admission to the hospital a critical care doctor said, "You're not getting enough exercise." He said, "I'm going to send you to physical therapy." I went to cardiac rehab, but when a nurse listened to my heart she wouldn't let me get on the treadmill. She then said, "If I put you on there, you could die." She asked who my doctor was and I told her I really didn't have one. She said, "I have a friend and I'd like for you to go see him." She recommended I see Dr. John Willard.
I needed someone to take a close look at my history and assess my current condition. Dr. Willard was that person. He's now the medical director at the Heart Center at Texas Health Harris Methodist Fort Worth. He is an amazing, amazing doctor. He saved my life. He saw me within 48 hours and did a full workup one night when nobody was left in his office except my husband, me, the custodian and himself.
He told me that night I had congestive heart failure. The only time I'd heard that phrase before was on television on ER when they would say, "And the time of death is..." So, of course, I thought it was a death sentence. And I began to get my affairs in order. But it wasn't a death sentence. Thanks to Dr. Willard I quickly learned that heart failure could be managed and instead I began the rest of my life. It's one reason I'm so dedicated to Harris Helping Hearts, the organization we formed at Texas Health Harris Fort Worth. It really does help people see the reality of their disease, get some perspective on it and understand that congestive heart failure is not a death sentence. It's a manageable disease.
That was more than 14 years ago. The most amazing things that a person could ever experience have happened to my life in those 14 years. I became assistant dean of the Honors College at UTA. I've gotten to see our son and daughter advance their professional careers. I've seen my son marry, and he and his wife gave us two beautiful grandchildren. I discovered that being a grandmother is the greatest thing that could ever happen to a woman. My journey has been remarkable! We travel; we do everything we want to do. People don't believe me when I tell them that I have heart disease. That says so much about modern medicine, the amazing science and incredible physicians we have attacking this disease today.
I think it's so important for women to understand that in terms of heart disease, they may present differently from men, which is exactly what happened in my case. Many times women have symptoms they don't recognize as heart disease. I also think women tend to neglect themselves in favor of their families. They feel they have to go forward — that they're the glue that keeps the family functioning efficiently. So they just keep going, denying they have a problem. It probably is a little delusional because, truthfully, our families can make it without us. I found that out myself, but when you're in the thick of it, you just can't see that. The time came when I had to rely heavily on them.
My bottom line: women need to understand what their symptoms mean, and they need to know everything about prevention. Those are things that are talked about a great deal today but were not so much in 1997. Most important, if women understand causes and prevention of heart disease, then everyone in the family understands also, and that knowledge will benefit the entire family.
I make it my mission to fight heart disease because I have two children, a son and a daughter. They may be more likely to have heart disease because it's presented in our family. My husband and I also have two beautiful and amazing grandchildren who I hope will never have to struggle with this disease. I continue to fight this disease because my cardiac experiences have prompted friends and family members to seek medical assessments and made lifestyle changes that have helped them avert the horrible surprise that I experienced. I share the education I have gotten regarding prevention and management of cardiac disease. Others have learned through my experience and that makes me feel great.
In 1997, no one talked much about women and heart health. While I was in the ICU that horrible September, a nurse told me I was lucky to be alive because women have a higher mortality rate from cardiac disease than men. That was a stunning statistic. I'm so grateful to the American Heart Association for their emphasis on women, and the Go Red for Women campaign has been fantastic. What they have done has benefited millions of women and saved more lives than we will ever know.