By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Lauren Bradley figured the American Heart Association’s Sweetheart program would look good on her college applications.

But participating in the program that teaches 10th-grade girls about heart health and provides volunteer opportunities at local hospitals did more than help her earn a scholarship — it made her realize she had symptoms of an abnormal heart rhythm.

As early as eighth grade, Bradley, who lives in North Little Rock, Arkansas, sometimes felt lightheaded and out of breath, even when sitting still. It happened so infrequently that she didn’t mention it to her parents or doctor.

But by the time she turned 17, the symptoms had become more frequent. At first, she thought it could be anxiety or stress. Then she wondered if it could be her heart.

“I had gotten a binder for the program that included a section on symptoms you might experience if something was wrong with your heart, and I was having nearly all of them,” Bradley said. “I don’t know if the doctors would have figured it out as soon if I didn’t have that binder.”

Lauren Bradley with her mom, Sandy, with the binder she received at the Sweetheart program's welcome reception in 2012. (Photo by Melisa Smock Clouette)

Lauren Bradley with her mom, Sandy, with the binder she received at the Sweetheart program’s welcome reception in 2012. (Photo by Melisa Smock Clouette)

An initial electrocardiogram showed some abnormality, but her doctor suggested it wasn’t unusual in people her age.

After a particularly bad day of symptoms in November 2014, Bradley told her parents something was wrong with her heart. She saw a cardiologist, who had her wear a heart monitor for two months. A few months later, she was diagnosed with supraventricular tachycardia, or SVT, a fast heart rate that begins in the upper chambers of the heart. She was prescribed medication to manage the condition.

Doctors aren’t sure what caused Bradley to develop SVT, the most common arrhythmia in children. She may one day grow out of it, doctors told her.

Bradley, now 21 and attending the University of Arkansas, pays close attention to her body and advocates for herself if something doesn’t seem right.

Lauren Bradley shared her story with the Sweetheart class in fall 2016. (Photo by American Heart Association)

Lauren Bradley shared her story with the Sweetheart class in fall 2016. (Photo by American Heart Association)

The discovery of Bradley’s irregular heartbeat wasn’t the only impact of the Sweetheart program. Armed with information about risk factors, a heart-healthy diet and ideas for making exercise fun, Bradley pushed her entire family to make major lifestyle changes.

“One day, Lauren came into my kitchen and said we had to start using olive oil and eating kale,” said Sandy Bradley, Lauren’s mom and a proud Southern cook.

The family began watching portions, cutting out fried food and adding more vegetables and lean meats to their diet.

Lauren’s dad, Roy, said he was regularly confronted when he’d opt for high-fat foods such as cheeseburgers and pizza.

“At first, I was a little taken aback that my child would tell me what I should and shouldn’t eat, but it’s hard to argue with them when they’re right,” he said.

The family also started going to the gym together. By February 2013, Bradley, who had been overweight most of her life, lost 20 pounds and changed her outlook on living healthy.

“I used to see exercise as a hassle,” she said. “Now I see it helps me feel a lot better. I don’t feel sluggish anymore.”

Lauren Bradley with her parents, Roy and Sandy, at the American Heart Association’s Central Arkansas Heart Ball on April 1, 2017. (Photo by American Heart Association)

Lauren Bradley with her parents, Roy and Sandy, at the American Heart Association’s Central Arkansas Heart Ball on April 1, 2017. (Photo by American Heart Association)

The impact on Lauren’s parents was also life-changing. After two decades, Sandy no longer needs high cholesterol and high blood pressure medication. She’s also shed more than 85 pounds. Meanwhile, Roy has lost nearly 50 pounds and no longer needs blood pressure medication.

Bradley said she’s proud of the changes she’s made.

“I really learned how to start taking care of myself and realized I needed to do more to strengthen my heart,” she said.

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