“I now shudder when I think I could have had a heart attack in the outback, miles from a hospital or help.”

Heart Healthcare Story

Growing up in Melbourne in the 1940s, I was part of a large, loving family.

Our relations were our closest friends and we spent holidays and weekends with our cousins.

I didn’t realise then just how young a lot of our male relatives were when they passed away, as 50 seemed quite ancient. But I remember that our family often spoke of it.

As I grew up and my own dear father developed the same symptoms as his grandfather, father, uncles and male cousins, I knew our family had a serious problem. They were all fine, strapping, healthy men, physically active with a good diet – no junk food in those days!

After a series of heart attacks my dad died aged 54, followed by his elder brother a couple of years later. Two other uncles died within six weeks of my father – not from the same gene pool but still young men by today’s standards. At that time I thought that angina, which led to heart attacks then death, was a condition exclusive to the male members of our family.

That was until my sister Rhonda, aged 51 had a major stroke. Rhonda was becoming well known as a writer, poet and playwright, and was struck down just as success was coming her way. Although she recovered at first, and took every precaution, another stroke when she was 53 led to her death.

I was still not concerned about myself, in spite of having hypertension and high cholesterol. After all, I wasn’t overweight and had never smoked. I enjoyed a very active lifestyle and was very involved with my four grandchildren, friends, travel and entertaining.

On a holiday to Central Australia in 2001 when I was 57, I struggled to keep up with my husband and friends as we hiked through the desert. As I had been diagnosed with mild asthma I assumed – or wanted to assume – that this was causing my breathing problems.

I now shudder when I think I could have had a heart attack in the outback, miles from a hospital or help.

My body sent me a message not to over-extend myself, so I stayed behind reading or sending postcards. I have two good friends to thank for insisting that I ask my doctor to check on my asthma.

I was sent immediately for an ECG, which showed a major artery blockage. I needed an urgent angiogram to ascertain its extent. As expected, I had a blockage in three arteries into the heart and would need a bypass operation – again as soon as possible.

It was with enormous trepidation that I entered the hospital as coincidentally it was the anniversary of my father’s death. It is a frightening experience, especially when one has seen so many family members in the same situation.

The night before my operation a volunteer had visited me. He reassured me that, in time, I was going to be all right. He knew because he had gone through the same ordeal.

I told him that if all went well for me, I intended to do everything I could to help others in the same situation – especially women, as it is not nearly so prevalent in females. I was later to discover that after their 40s and 50s, women catch up very quickly with men.

The operation was a huge success and five days later I was allowed home, although with strict instructions not to overdo it. For six weeks I attended exercise class three times weekly, couldn’t drive and felt very tired. But after six weeks I felt so much better.

Now nearly nine years later I am forever grateful that modern medicine has given me years of life that were denied to other members of my family. As an aside, my cousin Neil underwent a bypass two weeks after I did, aged 52 – more proof of our genetic predisposition.

Heart disease has affected others in my immediate family. At 40 years our daughter Sarah was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis. This alone does not cause heart problems but it makes you more prone to a whole range of diseases – including heart issues. As she also has inherited hypertension and high cholesterol, Sarah has to be vigilant in monitoring her heart health.

Imagine our distress when both our granddaughter (at age 16) and grandson (11) were found to have SVT – super ventricular tachycardia – within days of each other. It is a most frightening condition as your heart beats extremely fast and has to be controlled. Emily had a radio frequency ablation and Charles a cryo ablation to rectify the problem. Now both are well.

Research, even over the 10 years since my sister died, has enabled me to live an exciting and enriching life. My blood pressure and cholesterol are under control, and of course I am always following my cardiologist’s instructions regarding diet and exercise.

We now have five grandchildren and I feel most privileged to share their lives and see them growing up. I look at them and I feel such love and also relief that they don’t have the heart-health worries we used to have.

– Lynne, 72

“It’s a matter of what can I do to make my heart stronger?”

Heart Healthcare Story

Nearly a decade after I was declared cancer-free, I received another life-threatening diagnosis – congestive heart failure.

Initially, I wasn’t concerned when I felt ill following a big family dinner. My stomach hurt and there was a burning sensation in my chest.

I figured I just overate, and it was indigestion. I tried taking an antacid, but nothing seemed to help.

A friend of the family who was a medical student suggested I may be having a heart attack and urged my family to take me to emergency.

But it wasn’t a heart attack. Testing revealed I had congestive heart failure. It was such a shock for me. I never realised that was a possibility.

Looking back, I now realise I had been having symptoms of heart failure for more than a month. I constantly felt worn out, something she attributed to the wear and tear of caring for my grandchildren.

I thought maybe I was overdoing it because the grandchildren had me running around so much.

Doctors told me the most common cause of heart failure is coronary artery disease. But they said my heart failure was a consequence of damage caused by the chemotherapy I had for breast cancer treatment nine years earlier.

I had heard about the risks of heart attack and stroke, but congestive heart failure was a new term for me. I learned what I could about my condition.

Heart failure is a chronic, progressive condition in which the heart is unable to pump blood efficiently enough to meet the body’s needs. The condition can result from other conditions that put added stress on the heart muscle, such as an illness that affects the heart, or damage from sustained conditions such as high blood pressure.

I worked to find a doctor I felt could provide the best care.

The first doctor said I would need a heart transplant to survive. A second doctor told me I had six months to live.

I refused to accept such a grim assessment and sought a third opinion, this time from a cardiologist who suggested additional testing and worked to manage my condition with medication.

Finding a doctor willing to work with me was key. With the first doctors, I just felt like a number. But when I found this one, I finally felt like I could make it.

I can’t change the fact I have congestive heart failure, but I believe accepting my condition was important in managing my condition.

The damage was done, you have to accept it so you can move forward. I worked to focus on what I could control, rather than focus on things I couldn’t change.

I had to get educated and understand why this happened, but after that, it’s a matter of what can I do to make my heart stronger?

I made changes to my diet to avoid red meat and significantly reduce my sodium intake. I’m also in regular contact with my doctor to make sure my heart isn’t getting significantly weaker.

I realised I had to do my best to keep healthy and do what I could to beat this.

I try to keep active, though I no longer have the energy to do the 45-minute walk to the park I used to do several times a week.

I still go up and down the stairs and do things around the house. I try to keep moving, but have to be careful not to wear myself out.

I now have a housekeeper come once a week and gets help from my family with other daily chores that require more exertion. My husband does the dishes and my kids help with other chores when they visit.

My family has been very supportive. My kids are always making sure I’m not getting sick or doing too much.

I’m also careful to keep doing what I can for myself. If I just stayed home in bed and let people baby me all the time, I would have been a basket case.

I’m alive and I got to see my kids grow and see my grandchildren.

That’s all that matters.

– Sara, 65

“I looked at my left leg, which felt dead. My toes were dragging on the ground.”

Heart Healthcare Story

All my life I dreamed of making the highlight reel on ESPN.

A star basketball player at high school where I scored more than 1,000 points, I was expected to be a standout player when I arrived at college.

But at the young age of 19, I had a catastrophic stroke. Against all odds, I came back from this lifethreatening event. We all have obstacles. Overcoming them always starts with the first step, by pushing fear and doubt aside. When I started to recover, I made up my mind to get back out on the basketball court.

My ordeal began when I was lifting weights in an offseason workout. I got a piercing headache, like I was stabbed in the head with a knife. Later I found out it was a blood vessel bursting in my brain.

My left arm and leg went numb, and a fellow freshman teammate helped steer me toward the athletic trainer’s room. I looked at my left leg, which felt dead. My toes were dragging on the ground. That was the most emotional moment of my experience.

I was rushed to hospital where I was stabilized. On the way, they had to cut off my tee shirt, which had my nickname on it, Mr. 1,000,. I took this as a symbol to leave the old me behind. I had no choice but to start over.

A brain scan at the hospital showed I had bleeding into my brain in the frontal lobe on the right side. What caused the bleeding turned out to be a congenital blood vessel malformation called an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM. This abnormal tangle of blood vessels, where the arteries directly feed into the veins, looks like a can of worms or bowl of spaghetti. This creates weak points in the vessels, which can lead to bleeding and, in my case, a stroke.

Doctors performed a procedure to reduce the risk of further bleeding of my AVM. They snaked a catheter the size of a small piece of spaghetti into my brain and injected a liquid, gluelike substance through it, causing the vessels to seal up. Ten days later, I was in rehab for physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy.

Even though I had physical deficits and my left side was paralyzed, I had the goal of being back on the basketball court. I never doubted that.

After five weeks at rehab, I continued to do outpatient physical therapy. I was still having trouble walking and struggling with short-term memory loss when I returned to hospital for a seven-hour operation to remove the AVM and to prevent further hemorrhages.

Doctors didn’t have to go through the brain because the AVM was on the surface between the right and left hemispheres. The surgery went well. I went home in a few days.

There was nothing I did or didn’t do to cause my stroke, Harbaugh says. This was a congenital problem – blood vessels in my brain failed to develop normally. Often, doctors don’t know an AVM exists until the patient has seizures or headaches. The most common presenting symptom is bleeding in the brain.

Recent studies indicate more strokes are occurring at younger ages. Active young people, for example, football players or weightlifters whose necks may twist violently, are at risk for dissection of an artery, in which a blood clot forms, breaks off and blocks an artery in the brain.

Stroke is largely preventable, beatable and treatable. Some strokes are preventable by making lifestyle changes, for example, stopping smoking, getting moderate-to-vigorous physical activity regularly and eating a heart-healthy diet. High blood pressure and high blood sugar levels can be treated with diet, exercise and medication. Other strokes are hereditary and largely unpredictable. That’s when you have to focus on doing everything you can to recover and prevent a second one

I make sure to eat a heart healthy diet. I’m a whole-wheat pasta fan. I eat lots of fish, peanuts and olive oil and keep my fat intake down. I love salad and broccoli, and eat greens every day.

I lift weights, run on a treadmill, box, do agility drills and play golf, tennis and basketball. I get together with friends and shoots baskets to relieve any stress I may have.

I look at my stroke as a great gift. I have an opportunity to inspire others, to turn a negative into a positive. I don’t compare my situation to anyone else’s.

You can’t control what life brings, only how to play the cards you’ve been dealt. It takes hard work and dedication.

– Cory, 24