It all started in detention. There I was, 17 years old, wasting away a Saturday because I had the unfortunate luck to get caught with gum in class. I was given a choice by my detention officer: I could either go outside and help pick up trash with the rest of the ne'er do wells, or I could summarize an article for the detention officer's sick child. I found it a bit odd that the detention officer was asking me to do something that would actually be detention-worthy, but it was ridiculously hot outside that day so I chose option number two.
I was presented three articles and chose to summarize the one about a girl from a neighboring high school whose life was saved by an AED (automatic external defibrillator) after she went into sudden cardiac arrest during her basketball practice. The article discussed other schools in our district getting AEDs. I was supposed to voice my opinion, so naturally in my infinite teenage wisdom I wrote that there would be little use for the devices and the money would be better spent on an arts program for the school, something the kids could benefit from. Little did I know that the device I thought would be gathering dust would end up changing my mind, opening my heart, and starting me on journey I am so blessed to be taking.
Fast forward a few months and I’m sitting in math class. It’s the day before my first Prom. A beautiful red dress hung in my closet at home and my parent’s had held nothing back, I got it all: the shoes, the jewelry, nail appointment, hair appointment, you name it. But that was the last thing on my mind at the moment. I felt terrible. That morning I had begged my parents to let me stay home. I wanted to rest so I would be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for prom the following night. They weren’t buying it and told me that if I still felt sick after lunch period to call them and one of them would pick me up. So there I sat. What little I had managed to eat at lunch felt like a rock in my stomach as I gazed up at the clock ticking down the minutes until the bell rang and I could make a beeline for the front office to call someone to pick me up. I had nodded on and off during classes yet I couldn’t shake the exhaustion my body felt no matter how much sleep I tried to give it.
Less than 5 minutes left in class and the clock I had been staring so intently at began to sway. My eyes focused in and out and my vision became spotty. I instantly knew I was about to pass out. This was not the first time, I had passed out from exhaustion and heat before (I am from the south). My mind panicked as my body began to shut down. I tried to turn around to tell my friend I wasn’t feeling good but before I could…lights out.
Now at this point I was very unconscious and, SURPRISE, was busy having sudden cardiac arrest in the middle of my high school math class. According to my classmates this is how it all went down:
I only made it about halfway turned around and my leg shot out and made a loud, audible BANG! as it hit the overhead projector I sat next to. My arm simultaneously swung around and managed to hit the water bottle I had on my desk against the wall with a crunch of plastic meeting brick. I immediately slumped in my chair. Then the kids in my classroom did what any other high school teenagers would: they laughed at me. You see I was a bit of a klutz back then, still am, and this was not the first time that year I had seemingly tripped over my own two feet in front of god and everyone. It was only when I started turning a lovely shade of blue that people started to suspect something was actually wrong.
The room erupted in a panic. Kids began whipping out their cell phones and calling 9-1-1, the police, etc. The teacher (who was a substitute by the way – bless her heart) immediately ushered the students out to the hallway and called the principal’s office. A voice came through the overhead speaker telling teachers and students to remain in their classrooms and ignore the bell.
Coach Autry, who was teaching in the classroom next to mine, pushed past the students and began performing CPR. He later told me I was the first and hopefully last student he would ever have to put his lips on. I personally took it as a compliment because he was the baseball coach at our school and pretty easy on the eyes, but I digress. The vice principal was not far behind him, kicking off her heels as she slid in next to him to assist with compressions. Then in he came, the principal, toting along with him a brand spankin’ new AED that had been donated to our school a month ago. That device, that beautiful device I thought would be old and dusty before it ever saw use, shocked me twice before I regained a normal rhythm. The paramedics showed up shortly after and I managed to regain consciousness as they wheeled me out of the school into the back of an ambulance bound for the hospital.
Congenital heart defect. That’s what they told me later when the uproar subsided. After being rushed to the hospital, being poked and prodded, being sick (that lunch didn’t feel too rock-like as it tried to escape out of me Exorcist-style, let me tell ya), in pain, sore, tired, that’s what they told me: heart defect. Heart defect. Heart defect. No matter how many times it was said around me it still didn’t seem real, like someone had mixed up the charts with the person in the bed next to me. That wasn’t me, that wasn’t my problem. I was 17. I just started to get over the initial shock of puberty, no way did I have a heart problem, that’s for old people. But alas, it was so. The signs had been there all along: sudden fatigue throughout my lifetime, and apparently it wasn’t the heat that was causing all my black outs, go figure. I had an arrhythmia i.e. an irregular heartbeat. My heart had gone into ventricular fibrillation, a form of cardiac arrest, an electrical malfunction, if you will.
Needless to say I did not make it to prom. My red dress remained tucked away in my closet at home and I spent that night in children’s ICU wearing a faded white and blue floral print gown with a rather revealing back (if you get my drift). The nurses were nice enough to allow me to put on my corsage, although flowers were forbidden in ICU, and snap a quick Polaroid. I still look at it from time to time, the wires hanging off me as the monitors and medical equipment glow dimly in the background. Not the worst picture I’ve ever taken, believe it or not.
To make a long story short (kind of, but not really, lol) after a lot of anger, rejection and finally acceptance I managed to pull myself back together. I began attending charities and events, meeting all kinds of people who have been through what I had. Some older, some even younger, way younger. I learned that heart disease was unbiased, it affected everyone in all walks of life.
I began speaking at events, telling my story and using it to spread awareness and raise money to help fund local and national charities. I changed my major in college from art to public relations after working closely with some reps from Medtronic during a campaign for heart health. I wanted to make a difference. If I could do something, no matter how big or small, to help change a life, to help save a life, I wanted to do it. More importantly survived and thrived. I graduated high school, I went to college, made amazing friends and got my bachelors. I met a man I now call husband (when he’s not annoying me and deserving of other names). He is an amazing supporter and father of our two beautiful girls. Recently I applied for an accepted a job with the American Heart Association in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I cannot express how supremely happy and proud I am to be a part of such a great organization and excited about what the future holds for my family and this amazing career journey I’ve started. But more importantly I am so very lucky, and my heart is why.