HeartWise: Lessons Learned from a Twenty-Plus Year Heart Disease Survivor
My name is Michelle Burke, and I am a Heart-Disease Survivor.
21 years ago this month, I was diagnosed with Heart Disease. Specifically, Dilated Cardiomyopathy, with frequent runs of Ventricular Tachycardia.
This diagnosis means my heart is large, stretched out and rather floppy. Because of this, my heartbeats are irregular, and they produce an inefficient rhythm that is very fast, and if sustained, becomes deadly.
When the doctor called me one night while we were having dinner and told me that my heart was in “terrible shape” and asked me to be at the hospital and to “pack to stay a while,” I had no idea what my future held, or if I even had a future. Well, the future is now, and thankfully, 21 years later, I am here to tell the story.
The immediate result of this diagnosis was a miserable 10-day hospital stay, multiple painful surgeries, and the placement of a large defibrillator in my chest cavity. The longer-term result was an unexpected meeting with my mortality, a change in my outlook, an improvement in my health-related choices, and a new sisterhood with other heart-disease survivors.
I invite you to follow my heart journey from symptoms, to diagnosis, to treatment, to living with heart disease and then to finally, living well with heart disease. I have learned some things the hard way, some things from heart-sisters who had traveled this road before me, some things by digging into the research of The American Heart Association, and some things by the grace of God.
Join me, please comment, and let's live a full and heart-healthy life together.
So let’s begin where it all started.
I was 32- year-old mom to a nursing nine-month-old baby, an energetic three-year-old, and an inquisitive 5-year-old. After the baby was born, I felt tired. Not just tired. Barely making it tired. I would walk up the steps and lay down on the landing to catch my breath. When I picked up my kids, I would have to sit down to hold them.
My husband and I were, of course, busy with the kids to say the least, but I knew the tiredness that I felt every minute of every day was not typical. I would see other moms with young kids, and I knew deep inside that the stamina and weariness I experienced was different from that of my peers.
I dragged my tired self to several doctors to report this and ask them to fix me, and they told me that when my children grew up, I wouldn’t be tired anymore. When I said to them that my younger sister, Shari, had died ten years earlier because of a heart problem, they dismissed it as an anomaly and explained that “young women don’t often experience heart problems.” I didn’t believe that was sound logic, but I was too exhausted to argue.
So, even though I knew my symptoms were real and that I was not well, and even though I knew my family history was one with heart disease-- I decided to stop pursuing my health issues. I was busy with my young family, and I thought the right thing to do was to focus on them. So I tried my best to ignore my symptoms.
One day I was sitting in church when I quickly passed out. I didn’t fall down, but I lost vision, and my head bobbed before I regained full consciousness. My husband noticed this event and asked me if I was okay. I told him that I had not eaten breakfast, so he went to the back of the room and brought me a snack. I felt better after I ate, so we dismissed it as hunger. Later, a friend asked me if I had been feeling okay and urged me to see a doctor.
I didn’t do it. Been there, done that.
The next week at church my friend asked me if I had indeed gone to see a doctor. I explained I had previously been to several doctors and they all said I was okay. She strongly encouraged me to try one more time.
Finally, on Friday of the second week, I called a new doctor. On Sunday, my friend told me she had prayed every day that week I that I would heed her advice.
Months later (the results of the tests were lost and then found) while we were having a family dinner, my doctor called. I now knew why I was tired.
I was a heart-disease patient.
1. Must always listen to my body
2. Can’t stop looking until I find a doctor who takes symptoms and my family history seriously
3. To truly take care of my family, I must take care of myself first
How did you know you had heart disease? What did you learn as you experienced symptoms? Please comment/share as we walk together to continue to build full, heart-healthy lives.
NEXT: The Diagnosis