By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Toshawa Andrews fell in love with competitive ice skating as a child. In her mid-20s, her devotion kicked up a notch. She began competing, putting in several hours of training at least four days a week.
One day, she felt a burning sensation in her chest. Figuring it traced to something she’d eaten, she swallowed some antacid liquid to make the feeling go away.
It didn’t, and when she awoke at 5 a.m. the next day still feeling the burning in her chest, she drove herself to a Los Angeles hospital.
The burning subsided by the time she arrived, but she decided to still get checked out. A battery of tests revealed that she may be having a heart attack.
“You must have the wrong results,” she thought.
As it turned out, doctors later did consider those initial tests as wrong results.
An angiogram – a type of X-ray that shows how blood is flowing – showed no blockages. Doctors figured the earlier, troublesome test results may have been caused by a virus, so they sent her home.
And when she resumed her training and didn’t seem to have any other issues, it was easy to let it fade into the past.
Four years later, though, it happened again.
Four months after giving birth to a son, Andrews had just resumed training when the burning in her chest returned. She immediately went to the hospital.
Andrews not only suffered a heart attack that day, she had 10 more between 2007 and 2010. They occurred about every two months.
Andrews eventually was diagnosed with coronary microvascular disease (MVD), which affects the walls and inner lining of tiny coronary artery blood vessels that branch off from larger ones. MVD causes damage to the inner walls of the blood vessels. This can lead to spasms that constrict the blood vessels, thus decreasing blood flow to the heart. Coronary MVD has also been associated with an increased risk for cardiovascular events, like heart attacks.
Women, especially younger women, develop coronary MVD more frequently than men. As Andrews’ case shows, it can be difficult to diagnose.
Treatment has been difficult, too, because of the way her body has responded to medication. It took several months for doctors to find the right balance to manage her condition. She takes a combination of beta-blockers, blood thinners and calcium channel blockers, in addition to cholesterol-lowering medication.
Now 41, Andrews is on her fifth year without a heart attack. Still, there are plenty of reminders of the toll MVD has taken on her body.
She still experiences fatigue and angina. She’s also navigating side effects of various medications and low blood pressure.
Tissue damage from her heart attacks has reduced her heart function to about 30 percent and required the placement of an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) in 2012.
Having heart disease took Andrews by surprise. As an athlete, she maintained a healthy lifestyle and didn’t have a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. With three kids, Andrews does her best to keep her energy up and manage her illness.
She continues to exercise, walking at least 30 minutes each day at a minimum, but finds she has to listen to her body and rest more often.
“I still want to go hard and strong, but my heart can’t do that,” she said. “I can be fine one week and stuck in bed with pain the next.”
For the last five years, Andrews has been an American Heart Association volunteer, sharing her story several times a year at local churches and community events. She’s been particularly focused on issues for women and heart disease in the African-American community.
Her message: Heart disease can affect anyone.
“I don’t look sick at all,” she said. “I’m physically fit and when people see me, they’re shocked that I have heart disease. You don’t have to be 50 or 60 and overweight to have heart disease, there are people in their 20s who are getting diagnosed with it.”
Andrews’ promotional video for the 2013 Los Angeles Go Red For Women Luncheon
Health challenges during the last year have caused her to reduce her volunteer activities, as she works with her doctors to manage her condition.
“Before something like this happens, you take for granted what feeling normal is,” she said. “I hate the pain and suffering, but I’m still alive and I’m most grateful for that.”
Photos courtesy of Toshawa Andrews
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