She built her life around her quest for another child. In her late 30s, this meant refusing to take medicine to lower her high cholesterol. While this raised her chance of heart disease, she didn’t worry about it because of all the other things in her favor – a healthy diet, an active lifestyle, normal blood pressure and no family history.
By 40, Melissa was seeing fertility doctors to improve her chances of getting pregnant.
In addition she was trying to establish a clinical psychology practice in Chicago, while her husband, Ben, had lost his job. To bring in extra income, she started teaching a weekly class, but it proved to be a poor fit and she found herself dreading it. On top of all that, her father-in-law and grandmother died.
Then Melissa began to notice that she was becoming winded easily when she went walking with friends.
“I just thought, “Wow, I’m really out of shape,” she said. Her doctor said it likely came from a previously diagnosed exercised-induced asthma.
Melissa eventually became short of breath walking shorter distances. She also began having heart palpitations in stressful situations, feeling as though her chest had knots in it.
Her internist thought it was unlikely she had heart disease given her limited risk factors; she considered the symptoms more likely being stress-related. So Melissa left it at that.
Despite added symptoms – such as a sharp pain in her chest and a tingling sensation in her left arm – Melissa proceeded with plans to visit family in Detroit that Thanksgiving.
The pain became terrible, and Melissa was scared.
“If I moved at all, my chest would hurt,” she said. While she insisted on returning to Chicago, she didn’t call her doctor until Monday and didn’t have an appointment until Tuesday. On Wednesday, she had a treadmill stress test.
“I couldn’t even go 30 seconds,” she said.
The nurse checking Melissa’s heart suddenly became very quiet and excused herself to get the doctor.
Melissa was sent to the catheterization lab for further testing. The doctor also recommended she call someone to accompany her.
Melissa couldn’t fully grasp what was happening.
“Does this mean I can’t get pregnant?” she said.
“We are trying to save your life so that you can be here with your daughter,” the doctor said.
Even as a social worker asked her about drawing up a living will, all she could focus on was the chance she couldn’t have a second child
Doctors found a 95 percent blockage in one of her arteries. They inserted a mesh-like tube called a stent to restore the blood flow.
“The picture I had of someone having a heart issue looked very different from me,” Melissa said.
Four years later, the physical recovery has proven easier than the emotional one.
“I not only had to deal with being a cardiac patient, but also the fact that I can’t have another baby,” Melissa said. “I was dealing with this loss of what I thought our family would be. Even now, I’m still processing it.”
Melissa found the community she needed in the American Heart Association.
“I wanted to talk to more women, and change the picture of a cardiac patient,” Melissa said. “I felt so betrayed by my body and awesome shame and guilt. When I’d go to cardiac therapy, the other patients were all retirees. I just couldn’t relate.”
Melissa now takes medication to manage her cholesterol, plus beta blockers and a daily aspirin to reduce her risks. She’s also stepped up her exercise regimen, working out at a gym and participating in 5Ks and triathlons. In August, she participated in the Tri Goddess Tri race, and is encouraging others to join her in the annual event under the team name Go Red Tri Hard.
She’s learned that while not a primary risk like her high cholesterol, stress can impact behaviors that do increase heart diseases risk – such as diet and physical activity.
Despite moving to Detroit a year ago, her husband commutes to Chicago each week for work as he looks for a position close to home. Even so, Melissa has been active with American Heart Association’s Detroit office, volunteering as an advocate, sharing her story with others and trying to raise awareness about heart health. (In the picture above, Safiya is holding a 2013 Volunteer Recognition Award given to Michelle.)
“Mindfulness is such a popular catchphrase, but I really have been trying to be present and ready to embrace what I have and to be grateful,” Melissa said. “With all the delaying I did in terms of seeking medical attention, and all the pain I was in, I really could have had a massive heart attack.”
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