People don’t realize it, but heart disease kills one out of every three women, which is a far higher death rate than breast cancer or, for that matter, higher than all cancers combined.
I have an effective way of driving my point home — I just tell them, “Look at me.” As a professional fitness expert, aerobics instructor, and personal trainer at Delta Valley Athletic Club, I knew that heart disease sometimes attacks people at a relatively early age, but until March 23, 2007 it never occurred to me that it could be a problem for a person as young and as physically fit as I was.
My husband, Andrew, and I were on vacation at our second home in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. Everything was fine and I went to bed with no symptoms, but woke up at 2:00 a.m. with a pain in both arms that I can only describe as being similar to a pounding headache. Andrew asked me why I was awake, and I told him that both my arms were throbbing with pain. I thought that it might have been a pinched nerve because the pain seemed to be radiating outward from a spot high up on my back between my shoulder blades.
Andrew asked if it might be my heart, but I told him that the pain wasn’t like the symptoms associated with a heart attack and, after all, I was only 44 years old, with the body of a trained athlete, and had never smoked or had issues with weight or high cholesterol. I took fish oil pills and my food choices often ran towards a healthy Mediterranean diet. I did spin classes and ran track. Ironically, I was certified in heart-rate training and owned a professional heart monitor. My annual physicals had never revealed any problems.
It only made sense that a person with all those positive things going on should never worry about heart problems. However, I had always been aware that heart disease runs in my family and from childhood had terrible images of having a heart attack so had always taken care of myself. I knew that, after all my training and precautions, whatever my problem was, it simply couldn’t be my heart.
Who would have been less likely than I to have a heart attack? But it had happened. “Let me get you some aspirin anyway,” Andrew said. He brought me the aspirin bottle and a glass of water. I took four aspirin, which probably saved my life.
Two hours later, my right arm felt better, but my left arm was still painful, which made me nervous since pain on the left side of the body is one of the symptoms of a heart attack. However, the pain didn’t seem to be coming from my heart, but was originating at that point from a place just beneath my left shoulder blade.
I took more aspirin and by 10:00 a.m. the pain had subsided a little, but I didn’t feel right so I walked to a little clinic near our home. My blood pressure was good; my heart seemed to be operating normally. The medical staff gave me the reassuring diagnosis that I was dehydrated and was showing no signs of having a heart attack, then sent me home with a bottle of pedialyte, which is a electrolyte replacement liquid for children with fevers. By afternoon, I still didn’t feel better and was getting nervous. Our adult daughter was due to fly in that afternoon and I told Andrew, “As soon as Tess gets here, we’ll get her something to eat, and then I need to get to a hospital.”
We went to a hospital where they ran a test to check for cardiac enzymes, which are first indicators of heart trauma. The medical staff at first didn’t want to admit the truth but finally confessed that they were elevated. It was a shocking admission because I knew what it meant, and I must have gone white as a sheet. My lifelong fear of inheriting my family’s heart problems had become reality.
We needed an ultrasound to confirm the truth that I had experienced a heart attack. We were at Hospiten Hospital, which was about 45 miles away from the larger sister hospital that had an ultra sound. I went there, had the ultrasound, spent three days in ICU, and then four more days before they would let me take a stress test that would show blockages more clearly. The test was a surprise because I was able to walk on the treadmill at a slow pace, not breaking a sweat, or even breathing through my mouth, and was surprised when they told me, “You didn’t pass.” The test revealed four blockages.
Andrew called my dad’s cardiologist who spoke at length to the doctor in Mexico in order to assess the quality of care I was getting. It turned out that the medical care was good. Hospiten Hospital was a nice facility; my room was cleaned several times a day. The staff could usually speak English and were always nice. However, I really wanted to go home. I decided that if I was going to die, I wanted to die in my own country, hopefully in my own bed. The medical staff continued trying to help me recover to the point that I could safely fly home on a commercial flight. Eight days passed, however, and I still could not fly so my husband paid $30,000 for a private medical jet to get me home. Matt Ellison owner of Delta Valley Athletic Club and my boss, learned of my problem when he wondered why I wasn’t coming back to work. As soon as he learned about the incident he immediately called my husband. “Someone owes me a favor; if you need a jet, just let me know.” We would have loved to save the 30 grand, but I really needed a medical jet, which was in effect a jet-propelled airborne ambulance.
The flight was from Cancun to Buchanan Field, which is almost within sight of the Concord John Muir Hospital. By the time I got off the plane, I felt like I could walk to the hospital but a subsequent angiogram found three more blockages to go along with the four found in Mexico. They then spent a week waiting for my body to be rid of the blood-thinners that had been given to me. They finally performed an operation in which they did nine bypasses. A wonderful surgeon, Dr. Ralph Sommerhaug, took care of me. He was semi-retired and only took the most difficult cases. Mine was complicated enough to attract his attention. A few years later, he passed away from pancreatic cancer.
Following the operation, they performed a genetic blood study to measure my levels of lipoprotein(a) (Lp(a)), which is a potential marker of residual liver function. My Lp(a) value was 204, which was more than 20 times above normal. Massive doses of Niacin subsequently brought it down to nine. My problems had a genetic cause, as I suspected. My doctor said the fact that I was in such good physical condition probably kept the disease from happening a decade earlier.
I was released from the hospital three weeks following the attack. The physical healing process wasn’t fun, but my mental and spiritual recovery was worse. I was unable to process the fact of my plunge from teaching high intensity spin classes to not being able to walk for five minutes. I sunk into an anxious state always waiting for the “next surprise.” My cardiologist, Dr. Augustus Argenal, told me that he didn’t want me to live in fear. I guess it was a teachable moment because I decided to follow his advice and no longer to live in fear of what the next day or even the next moment might bring.
I did rehabilitation for several months at the Cardiac Rehab Center at John Muir Balfour. Matt Ellison wanted to know if I wanted a spin bike delivered to the rehab. He would call on a regular basis and ask how I was doing and never asked when I was going to be back to work.
Three months following the operation, we returned to Mexico. I took the advice of my cardiologist to heart and determined not to avoid any of the things I enjoy doing out of fear that something might happen. I reinforced myself with the thought that as many people had heart attacks while sitting on their couches as when they were scuba diving. I had a great time!
I attended a national aerobic convention five months following the heart attack, saw people having so much fun with Zumba that I subsequently obtained my certification and four months later was conducting Zumba
classes myself. I discovered that Zumba had partnered with the American Heart Association’s nonprofit foundation that sponsored a campaign called Go Red. The organization had Go Red For Your Heart as their tagline. I was immediately attracted by the opportunity of using the Go Red women’s organization as a way of sharing my own issues with heart disease in order to raise awareness among women that heart disease is a genuine threat. I figured I was a perfect spokesperson because if I could have a heart attack then anybody could.
We hold a fundraising and conscience raising event each year on the first Saturday after the first Friday of February. Delta Valley Athletic Club sponsors the event, and we do 2.5 hours of Zumba with a silent auction. Vendors and instructors from all over the Bay Area show up. A nice crowd of people, including a number of families, come to dance and watch the party. At the first event we were hoping for 50 people and 100 turned out. We raised $1,000. Each year the crowds and the donations have increased. Last year we did it in the rain. Even though the weather kept some people away, the donations broke the record. We raised $7,000. This year the event is February 7 and we expect it to be bigger and better than ever.
People are using their creativity to help the project. A number of hunky-looking guys from my early morning class recently completed a Real Men of Spin calendar. It is amazing!
Go Red is a great project because, unlike some charities there is no overhead. Every penny raised is given to the American Heart Association Go Red Bay Area. Most of the donations come from individuals, but local businesses also contribute to the cause and are supporting us in various ways. Matt Ellison donates the club plus the club’s childcare facilities, which he staffs with his own employees who are on the clock.
When I first had the heart attack, I wanted to keep quiet about what was happening. I was afraid of rumors, but they started up anyway. One was that I didn’t have a heart attack but was attacked by sharks. My husband carried me ten miles down a dirt road. Another rumor was that every valve in my heart was bad and replaced by pig valves. I recently learned that I had been on a cruise ship; abducted by pirates; rescued by seals. I came to like the stories. The rumors were better stories than the real thing. Good for a laugh.
I’ve not only recovered my good spirits and positive attitudes, but have moved beyond the level of mental and emotional health that I was at before the heart attack. I’ve come to regard the event as a blessing in disguise. Now when I wake up, I look at Andrew and say “Good morning” with a sense of sincerity that I never experienced before. I have always been grateful for the blessings of life but now am engaging in life at a level that I couldn’t have imagined.