February is American Heart Month. According to the American Heart Association, one in three women die of heart disease or stroke. Education and lifestyle changes can prevent 80 percent of cardiac events. These were just statistics to me until I had my own heart scare two years ago.
Around 2008, my husband and I decided it was time to stop living and eating like grad students so we made a commitment to start eating healthier and exercising. Even though I’ve always been a healthy weight, I was never physically fit. We both started running and really began to enjoy it. We trained for 5ks, 10ks, and eventually a half marathon together. After having our first child, running became my special time, my “me time” and my worship time. I ran another half marathon after my daughter was born and continued running until getting pregnant with my son. My pregnancy with my son was very difficult and involved a lot of bed rest. Needless to say, there was no running involved! My daughter and I spent most of those 9 months of my pregnancy inside our house. As soon as my son was born in March 2012, I craved to be outside and active again!
My friend wanted to run a half marathon before her 30th birthday, so we decided we would train together to run in October 2012. As soon as I was released from my OB doctor, we started walking and running together. We used a very conservative training program since we were both basically starting from scratch! We ran the Jazz Half Marathon in October 2012 and decided to run the Rock-n-Roll Half in February 2013. Both races went well…we were not trying to qualify for anything or win any awards; we were just two moms with a goal of finishing!
A month later, I put on my shoes and headed out for a casual afternoon run. I barely made it ½ mile from my house and nearly passed out. My head was pounding, I couldn’t breathe, my heart was racing, and I was scared. This had never happened before. I walked very slowly, having to take breaks until I could get back to my house. I felt so weak. I physically could not move for the rest of the afternoon and night. We decided I should call my general practitioner and they recommended I come in. I spent close to 7 hours at the doctor’s office having lots of bloodwork and tests run. The day concluded with a conversation I will never forget. The doctor said that all the tests came back normal. That I was a mom with 2 young kids and an exercise fanatic. That I just needed Xanax and to chill out. That next time I had one of these episodes, the meds would be better than going to an emergency room. I tried my best to communicate that I really didn’t think stress or anxiety was my issue. I walked out of there confused and upset and hooked up to a 24 hour heart monitor (just in case). As the tech was putting on the heart monitor, she kept asking me about my problem with anxiety. I tried to tell her, too, that I didn’t think that was the issue but it seemed no one understood what I was trying to say.
See, running was the most peaceful time of my day. It was my quiet time with God. It was my jam out time with my favorite bands. It was not a time of anxiety or stress! I asked my husband and my friends honestly if they saw something that I did not. Was I too stressed? Was I not handling being a mom of 2 small kids very well? Did running 2 or 3 times a week make me an exercise fanatic? I needed honest answers because I know sometimes we don’t like to be honest to ourselves. With lots of reassurance, I decided I needed to trust my gut on this one. When the nurse called me back with my 24 hour monitor results (which were normal), I told her to please let the doctor know I would not being filling the Xanax prescription because I didn’t really think it would help me. She then called me back to offer me Lexipro instead. At this point, I was done. Done. Done. I was not depressed or anxious. I have no problem taking medicine when necessary and have no doubt those meds are helpful for many people. But I had something happen to me while running that had never happened before. Something very scary. Something I truly believed would not be helped by these medicines!
A couple weeks later, it happened again. This time I knew I had to follow up but didn’t know where to start. Thankfully, I have a dear friend who is an advocate and survivor of heart disease. I thought I needed a doctor referral to see a cardiologist. She told me absolutely not and gave me the name of an awesome doctor. I felt so silly making the appointment and really thought he would just tell me the same thing as the other doctor. I was sure he was going to tell me it was all in my head.
That appointment was the best decision I’ve made for my health. He explained so much to me about the heart and different conditions. My heart looks perfectly healthy. Cases like mine are harder to diagnose because everything looks fine but may not function properly. He assured me that if it was my heart, he would find the issue but that I would need to be patient because it may take time. He encouraged me to keep running as long as I listened to my body and took appropriate measures to get my heart rate back down.
For the past 2 years, I have been monitored by my cardiologist as well as an Electrophysiologist (cardiologist that specialized in the electrical function of the heart). They have seen evidence of potential electrical issues in my heart. They have encouraged me to stay active because that is good for my heart. During this time, I have trained and completed my first full marathon. It has been a long road. After the first episode in 2012, I had to learn to run again with this new condition. It took me months to be able to run 3 miles again and slowly I was able to add longer runs. It’s not just running either. One day I nearly fainted pulling weeds in our flower bed. I have to be careful about not overheating. It’s been a learning process and a challenge to stay tuned in to my body and know when to make adjustments. I never know when my heart will act up and mentally it’s hard to comprehend how I can’t do something one day that I could do the previous day. Most days I feel great. On the days when I feel bad, I’m reminded how important it is to have a healthy heart.
Two years later, I am so thankful for trusting myself enough to pursue more testing. Because I listened to my body, we are now in a better position to be proactive in my care. I did not have any risk factors for heart issues –never smoked, healthy weight, active lifestyle, and no family history. However, I had a gut feeling that this was not “normal” even though all the tests said it was. It’s not a bad thing to seek a second opinion. The funny thing is this – had this been about one of my kids, I would not have hesitated to explore every avenue to find the best answer for their health. But when it was time to do that for myself, I hesitated, needed reassurance from others, and felt guilty for seeking a second opinion. This whole process has taught me that we as women, mothers, wives, sisters, and friends need to make OUR health a bigger priority and to do for ourselves what we would do for others! It also has taught me and continues to teach me to trust myself, that gut feeling, and to listen to my body every hour of every day!