How one woman’s near brush with death and a failing heart, turned her life around for the better.
My Spring of Sharp Stabs
I was waitressing on the patio located in my hometown of Simsbury, Connecticut, the day I first felt the ache, and what a perfect day it was to be working outside. The spring rains had just ended, everything was in full bloom, and I was feeling lucky.
I had just returned from a week-long vacation with my fiancé on the coast of Rhode Island. While the beach was a blast, the getaway wasn’t much different than my regular life at the time. My fiancé Alex and I both worked at the same restaurant with mostly the same hours. We drove in together, worked hard and made our money, and then closed the bar with all our friends and staff. Alex and I would unwind from the night and drink red wine with everyone into the early morning before driving back to our cozy condo together. I was 26 and loving life.
That sunny morning on the patio, a woman I was serving complimented my eye shadow. “Thanks!” I said. “I picked it up at—” but that’s when the pain shot through my chest. My knees weakened and began to buckle. I had no idea what was happening to me. But I was embarrassed to lose control in front of a customer. So I did my best to hold my composure. That is, until I couldn’t hear what I was saying anymore. A pressure built in my head, so that I felt like I was underwater.
For a brief second I wondered if I was still making sense. Before I knew it, I had run to the kitchen to tell Alex something was wrong. But the kitchen was busy— too busy to get his attention. I went out back and sat down. After a couple of minutes I began to feel better, and right back into work I went.
Yet every couple of hours or so, there it was again. One quick stab to my heart, strong enough to stop me in my tracks. The following month was tough. When something is wrong in your body, you just know. While everyone else wrote off my pain as “indigestion” or “muscle cramps,” I knew it was my heart.
Having no insurance, I scheduled an appointment at a walk-in. When they assured me nothing was wrong, I called my primary care doctor. After he assured me nothing was wrong, I called a cardiologist. Within the month I was blood-tested and X-rayed and given a diagnosis. I had “mitral valve prolapse,” which meant that the valve that separates the upper and lower chambers of the left side of my heart wasn’t closing properly. On top of that, one of my heart’s chambers was pumping weakly. I was probably born with the prolapse, but the weak portion of my heart muscle was a dangerous mystery. I was told I was facing congestive heart failure.
I looked up every possible cause, and some of them made sense. I’d had walking pneumonia in the winter, I’d had a plethora of dental work done recently, I had been a heavy smoker when I was younger, and diabetes ran in my immediate family. Still, we couldn’t pinpoint the cause, and the doctor wasn’t sure we could fix it, either. Without insurance, I couldn’t afford to monitor my heart, so I was sent home with another appointment marked in December—four months away.
Under doctor’s orders, I stayed completely away from cigarettes and alcohol, which, in the bar industry, would’ve been hard. I say would’ve been hard because it wasn’t anymore. I was truly scared for my life. I felt like I was trapped in a nightmare. My anxiety skyrocketed and I was having trouble sleeping, convinced that at any time my heart would stop beating.
I decided doctor’s orders weren’t enough to make me feel safe that I could heal and live. I knew online ailment surfing could lead to misinformation and extra anxiety, so instead of looking up my sickness, I looked up general healthy ways of living. I devised a diet consisting of low sodium, high protein, raw fruits and vegetables, and no fructose corn syrup. There would be no more candy, chips, or coffee. I started out incredibly bland. Lots of tuna fish, bananas, and eggs. Soon I learned how to flavor the more tasteless foods in natural, healthy ways using lemon juice, honey, ginger, and chili pepper flakes. I was making sure that I was eating as organically as I could, and through trial and error found cheaper ways to eat a more healthful diet.
Heartbreak And Cardio
About a month into my new diet, Alex left for a college reunion back in his hometown. I was still worried about my health, and scared to be alone in our condo in case something happened to me in the night. But of course I told him to go. The last thing I wanted was to be a sickly girlfriend, smothering the life out of my relationship.
I stayed busy with my new diet regiment, working, and watching every season of “Lost” on Netflix until Alex came back. But he didn’t come back the way he was before he had left.
Within four hours of picking Alex up from the airport, he was tagged in over 200 photos on Facebook from the reunion. I quickly noticed that most of these pictures were with one girl, Katie. The images couldn’t have been more clear: He had cheated on me. Their heads angled toward each other, touching at the temples, a kind of smile I hadn’t seen on Alex in months.
I tried hard not to press him about it. I felt I couldn’t know right then. What if I was too sick to handle it? But I couldn’t erase what I knew, and Alex’s constant denial left me frustrated and helpless. All I wanted to do was to fill my lungs with Parliament smokes and drink bottles of red zinfandel. I wanted Chinese takeout and a pint of ice cream. I knew that I couldn’t indulge in these vices, and boy was I bitter.
For days, I paced and cried. My nervous energy skyrocketed, and once again sleep became nearly unknowable. At this point I was also refraining from all medications, so no Tylenol PM or Nyquil could salvage me. Meanwhile, the pent up anger and nervous energy aggravated my heart pain, so I started scrambling to find healthy ways to relax.
No. 2 on the “longevity” list right after eating healthy: exercise. I knew working out was “healthy,” but I wasn’t sure it was healthy for people with heart problems. Wouldn’t that exacerbate my condition? What if it triggered a heart attack? Was it worth it?
The universe seemed to come together for me one morning after I opened the bar. A man in a gym shirt came in for a salad, sans dressing. We got to talking, and it turned out that he was a personal trainer. I decided to tell him about my condition and ask him for advice. Crazily enough, it turned out he too had mitral valve prolapse! I told him that even more than the prolapse, it was my weak chamber that worried me.
“Your heart is a muscle,” he said. “Any muscle you work becomes stronger.”
“Duh!” I thought. “Of course!” It made perfect sense, and I laughed to myself about how fearful I had been. That evening, I started working out at the mini gym in our complex. The feeling I had after just 30 minutes on the treadmill was unbelievable. My worries of a heart attack faded as I felt my heart pump strong and sweat drip down my face. I felt a little primal and much more in touch with and in control of my body. Some days I made the trip to the mini gym and used the outdated treadmill for 20 minutes, and some days I brought my headphones and ran for hours.
As I grew more confident in my health, my anger at Alex dissipated. I knew my romantic relationship was regressing back into the platonic one Alex and I had started with years before. I think the only thing keeping me from a total breakup meltdown was that I was incredibly tired of being a victim. I started to understand Alex’s side too. I saw that my constant worrying, nagging, and general anxiety had pushed him away. I was no longer the carefree, funny girl he had fallen in love with. Sickness had exacerbated the flaws in our relationship, and I had become a hopeless victim.
I had screamed at Alex on many occasions, trying to explain how it felt to be so sick. But my intention of making him understand had been negated by my resentful delivery, and I was only dragging him down with me. I knew I didn’t have the strength or time to fix our unhealthy relationship, and it was time for me to be a bit selfish. I was facing a huge health scare, and I needed to focus on myself.
Pumping At Full Throttle
Things became much more amicable and calm in my life. I was eating right, working out regularly, and sleeping well. Before I knew it December rushed in, along with an early snow. I knew that no matter the results of my appointment, I had tried my hardest to be the healthiest I could be.
Still, on the day of my re-testing, I cried quietly but continuously as the poor medical technician conducted the ultrasound. The week I waited for the results took longer to pass than the previous four months had. Although once I was in my cardiologists office, to hear the results, I wished the week had gone even slower. I was stuck between wanting to know and never wanting to know—literally never.
Instead of sitting down at the desk across from me, my cardiologist stood next to me and stuck out his hand. I stood awkwardly and shook it. My face must have conveyed my confusion and dread because my cardiologist spoke quickly.
“Your heart is perfectly normal,” he said.
You would think I’d have burst into tears. But instead I stood in shock, dumbly nodding as he continued.
“Keep doing what you’ve been doing, and you will live a very long life! I was ready to come in today and talk about future heart transplant options and lifelong prescriptions with you, but you are as healthy as can be.”
He explained that while the mitral valve prolapse would always be evident, making my heart beat off rhythm once in a while, it was not life-threatening. The chamber of my heart that had been pumping at a dangerously low 40 percent was now pumping full throttle!
Listening To The Beat Within
Six months following my full recovery, I met a man named Rob at a coffee shop. We instantly fell for each other and have been dating for two years now. We recently made the leap to not only move in together, but to drive from our hometown in Connecticut to Los Angeles to start our lives as a couple.
Meanwhile, Alex and I have stayed close. After my health scare and our breakup, we continued to share our condo together for another year, even after we had both started dating other people. Alex actually visited us in Los Angeles late in the fall after we moved.
Alex finally admitted that he had indeed cheated on me. Perhaps he spilled the beans because so much time had passed, or perhaps he needed to clear his conscience. He said he never went to the reunion to sleep with someone else, but confessed that upon getting on the plane back to New Jersey, a weight was lifted off of him. He felt more free and alive than he had in months. When he met up with his hometown buddies, he had innocently decided to omit certain details of his new life, like me. He wanted to keep it light, he said. He didn’t want to think about the chaos in Connecticut.
These guys were all still single and took up right where they left off in high school, high-fiving each other and flirting with girls. Later in the night, a girl he had lusted after since eighth grade walked straight over to him. Katie and Alex were locked in conversation until the bar closed, and there was a strong connection between them that hadn’t existed before. Alex was excited. The prevalent booze made it easier for him to slip into a life he felt he wanted more than the life he currently had, even for just one weekend.
Alex says he hasn’t seen Katie since, but I almost wished he had; I hoped that she was important enough to him since she helped ruin our relationship.
I once again assured him that I already knew the gist of the story, and I wasn’t angry anymore. Instead, I am grateful for my “change of heart.” It taught me a very important lesson that I probably would never have learned, or learned far too late. Your body is amazing, and it comes equipped to heal itself from the inside out.
People are not as fragile as they believe, and if you give your body the nutrients it needs to fix itself, it will certainly surprise you. Of course there are still illnesses that require medical science and prescribed medications and treatments. But eating organically and exercising can work wonders to naturally heal the body and lessen the need for costly and dangerous procedures.
When I got sick, I started truly listening to my heart, literally and figuratively. I realized how short life really is, and I become much less worrisome and much more forgiving.