I am a second generation American Heart Association volunteer; you could say it’s in my genes. In the early 1980s, my dad had open heart surgery in Houston, Texas with Dr. DeBakey from Lake Charles looking on. My parents began a Mended Hearts Chapter in Lake Charles, La. after his surgery. My dad would speak to the patients and my mother would speak to the caregivers. They were active volunteers until their age and health prevented them from their weekly visits to the hospital. I cannot even begin to count the number of lives they touched or the research they may have assisted in from the 1980’s through 2001.
My dad did not require any additional heart procedures and later died from cancer at the age of 83. My mother suffered a few strokes. She needed the assistance of a speech therapist to learn how to swallow her food. My sisters and I cared for her in her home. We became experts on protein shakes and proper liquid intake for Congestive Heart Failure patients. She also needed a pacemaker and then oxygen for her Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD). She died at the age of 87 from COPD. It was during the last year of her care I began to notice symptoms of my own. I didn’t have time to be sick and I almost waited too late to help myself. I was definitely in denial.
In 2008, at the age of 50, I was headed for cardiac rehabilitation after two balloons and a stent. My heart was so out of shape, I could only exercise for eight minutes. I vowed to get myself in shape and never let this happen again. My six weeks of rehab ended and I continued on my own almost two years. My heart rate monitor was my new best friend. I dropped the extra pounds and have worked to keep them off. I consider myself an onset athlete. I have made lifestyle changes that are now simply habits. None of this was easy, especially in a state that celebrates every occasion with food, but I get it now. I understand why my parents worked so hard. I am already reaping the benefits of life-saving stents and new medications that were only thoughts in the 1980’s.
During my recovery, my diabetic husband had to have open heart surgery, just like both of his parents. I have been his caregiver through the surgery, ten stents and an ablation that have followed. His journey has proven more tedious because it now involves Medicare and many medications require additional authorizations from health care providers. We have become experts on Medicare appeals. We have learned a lot about our hearts and do everything we can to stay healthy because we can do nothing about our genetics.
In 2009, I began to volunteer with the American Heart Association. I assist with the Go Red For Women luncheons and Heart Walks every year, sometimes providing Zumba at the walks. I am a member of the Passion Committee, which works towards the mission of the American Heart Association with events throughout the year. I have helped as an advocate by sending emails to our elected officials on issues such as CPR for all high school graduates in the state of Louisiana.
I have had the opportunity to advocate on the federal level, in Washington D.C., on issues near and dear to my heart. Issues such as expanding access to stroke tele-medicine and cardiac rehab, as well as increasing funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). To show Congress the face of “a pre-existing condition” and to ask them not to forget me and the millions of Americans like me. It is such a rewarding experience to have the chance to tell my story to our lawmakers and be a part of the solution.
I am blessed. I had parents that showed me how to live with heart disease and use my knowledge to help others. They taught me how to change the things you can and live life to the fullest with what you have been given. I hope to leave the same legacy to my children and grandchildren.
I work full-time. I have been a certified Zumba instructor since 2014 and I teach at least two classes a week. I received two more stents in March of 2015. In October of 2017, I completed my eighth half marathon.
I no longer consider myself a survivor, but a "thriver."
I look forward to many more years of volunteer opportunities and doing my part to be part of the cure. After all, it’s in my genes!