Thursday, February 4, 2010

Cardiovascular Disease & Women: My Story

Did you know? While 1 in 30 American women die of breast cancer, 1 in 3 die from cardiovascular disease. (American Heart Association)

I've often taken time in the month of February to indulge my crafty side by designing and sewing decorative heart-shaped pillows and sachets as gifts for my loved ones and for my own artistic satisfaction.
As a kid, I marveled at, coveted and collected the lacy, flower embellished, lavender, pink and red heart-shaped boxes of candy that Dad would bring Mom on Valentine's Day.
Over the years, when doodling, the emphasis has been on curly, circular vines, flowers, and hearts.
During my 24 years as a parent, when I scrawl a note to one of my kids, a hastily drawn heart always accompanies my messy "Mom" signature.
So I suppose it was only fitting that the greatest heart event of my life occurred in February of 2008 - a quadruple cardiac bypass surgery.
Since childhood, I've feared heart attacks. My father suffered a big one when I was seven. It left him forever changed - living on borrowed time; visibly sensitive to exertion, heat, and stress; often and suddenly pale, breathless and popping a nitroglycerin pill under his tongue; a diet fanatic - we all became salt-free and regular visitors to health food stores.
My dad drank fish oil from a large brown bottle and chomped on raw garlic as most of us would chomp on gum or a mint. He walked on the beach for physical exercise and spiritual and mental peace. He rode his bicycle as often as his condition and his schedule would allow. He installed a pull-up bar in our kitchen threshold.
He died suddenly, but not unexpectedly, in the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning 1979, a few days before I turned 17. He was 49.
The salt-free diet served me well, as did the exercise of riding my bicycle nearly everywhere I went as a teenager. The love of the beach I inherited from my Dad was also helpful -I swam a lot in the ocean and I ran and played a lot in the sand.
As a teenager, it wasn't unusual for me to pass out because of low blood sugar.
In my twenties, I managed to have three children while effortlessly maintaining LOW blood pressure and LOW blood sugar.
While in my teens and on the beach, I developed a fear of heart surgery. I could barely muster the courage to steal a fleeting glimpse of the scar-bearing chests of older men who had obviously gone under the knife. I resolved then that I would never allow my torso to be cracked open like some boiled lobster on a dinner plate.
But, obviously, when push came to shove and I was faced with do or die at the age of 45, I consented to become the dreaded lobster on the plate, so to speak, cracked open for all to see.
My plea to women and to those who love a woman (en) is to pay careful attention to the next part of my story.
The part about the unusual changes that took place in my physiology after 30, and the unexpected physical symptoms that indicated I was approaching death's door.
At 30, as though someone put a curse on me, I began to feel regularly lethargic and depressed. I loved being a mother, so the decline in physical and mental health and stamina wasn't due to that.
Since my late teen years, I had played with the same 10 to 15 pounds of weight - up and down the scale, on and off the chin to belly region - that same 10 to 15 pounds, year after year.
But at about 32, after two years of declining stamina, it seemed that one morning, I woke up 50 pounds heavier than I had ever been. It was the most rapid weight-gain I had ever experienced. I was also very thirsty, and eating before 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. made me nearly catatonic.
I hypothesized that I had a disorder of the endocrine system, and headed off to a doctor. The doctor, who later lost his license, told me there was no reason to address my endocrine system. He prescribed diet pills and Prozac, and sent me on my way.
I'm not going to detail the fiasco that ensued from the whopping misdiagnosis. My condition improved at first, followed by out and out mayhem.
I suffered with lethargy, depression and battled my weight until I became pregnant at 36.
I was immediately diagnosed as a type 1 diabetic, not gestational, not type 2, but type 1, or Juvenile Diabetes. I began a strict diet and thrice daily insulin injections.
My then-10-year-old daughter, Lauren, was my savior. I was a big baby who couldn't stand to inject myself.
Little Lauren practiced a few times on an orange, and then fearlessly became my essential person, my injector. I did eventually suck it up and inject myself, as I was out in the world working as a newspaper reporter, and as Lauren had to go to school and have a life of her own!
I lost lots of fat during the pregnancy, kept my sugar down, gave birth to a 7-pound ,healthy boy with normal blood sugar. I hadn't felt as healthy in 10 years!
After the birth, I wasn't as diligent with the insulin as I had been during pregnancy. I went off of it more times and for longer periods than I should have, surely damaging my arteries.
I never experienced a dramatic weight gain again. It was back to playing with the usual 10 to 15 pounds.
The stress of divorce; my newly ex-husband becoming terminally ill; moving to Florida; hurricanes destroying my home; working as a reporter and bureau chief; dealing with frightened, confused teenagers and a little boy, all took a toll.
I ended up in an emergency room with 600 blood sugar.
I went back on insulin religiously. I eventually lost the fight against increasing stress and fatigue. I quit my wonderful, well-insured job. I was so tired, so sick, so "undone."
With no health insurance, I employed natural remedies for the diabetes and ate well.
I began to rapidly lose weight. I had never, ever experienced such a dramatic weight loss.
People were commenting that I looked great - that I looked like a teenager.
I would reply with a sarcastic, ironic laugh,"Yeah, for me to be this skinny and looking this good, I must be dying of some dreaded disease."
From childhood, I've had lower back problems, and less often upper back and neck pain.
Along with the weight loss, I began to experience increasing upper back pain, especially and most painfully along the bra strap line, with tightness and burning.
I had moved to NEPA for personal reasons, and I'd gotten a job at a local newspaper. Two weeks into the job, my back pain was becoming detrimental to physical activity.
The weekend of January 26/27, I couldn't get out of bed. I was irritable, lethargic, nauseous.
Every inch of my body ached and throbbed, but none more than my upper back.
On Monday morning, January 28, 2008 I was determined to either go to a chiropractor or to ignore it all and head to my new job.
My significant other braved my stubborn, indignant dismissal of his concern and my formidable wrath. He stood his ground and loved me enough to save my life by confiscating my car keys and refusing to drive me anywhere but to an emergency room.
He had watched my decline. He had noticed that I was becoming weaker by the day, when no one else saw it. And, most importantly and just in time, he refused not to act to save my life.
Be aware of your body and what it may be telling you.
Be aware of the condition of the women you love.
And don't ever be afraid to speak up to save a life!

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