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Shelly Afthim, Survivor, Staff and Advocate

Meet Shelly Afthim, Southern Maine Heart Walk Director, Survivor and Fierce Advocate.

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In the 5 minutes it will take to read my story, approximately 8 people will die from cardiovascular disease. Every 38 seconds we lose someone to this disease, yet 90% of heart disease is preventable if you know your risks and make positive lifestyle changes. The American Heart Association works tirelessly to assure Maine has policies and laws in place to help make the healthy choice the easy choice across the state.

I joined the American Heart Association in November of 2017 as the Southern Maine Heart Walk Director. While I may be new to my position, I am not new to heart disease. My life has been saved because of the life-saving advancements funded by the American Heart Association. As a survivor, I feel it is my responsibility to tell my story to as many people as possible to help educate and save more lives and to help change policies to make Maine as healthy as it can be.

In the summer of 2006, I was a busy working mom with two boys who were 3 and 5 years old. We had just moved back to Maine from the Boston area after the death of my mother. I was able to relocate my job as a New England Account Executive, so long as I continued to travel as much as I had been throughout New England. It was an incredibly stressful time in our lives and part of the reason I was not taking my symptoms seriously.

In early September, I started to feel run down, I had fatigue, I was short of breath when climbing stairs and I had a persistent cough that seemed to get worse when I laid down at night, which also caused me to have trouble sleeping. I had researched my symptoms on WebMD and determined that I had bronchitis. I was wrong. Four weeks later, I took myself to the ER. The doctor informed me that I did not have bronchitis, but that I was in congestive heart failure and needed to call my husband because I was being admitted.

I was only home for about a week when the visiting nurse asked me if I felt okay. I did but asked why. She said “you have a very weak pulse, very low blood pressure and low oxygen levels…with these numbers you shouldn’t be sitting here looking so healthy”. I was then readmitted in the hospital and told I would need an implanted cardiac defibrillator or ICD to prevent sudden death.

It has been over 11 years since I had an ICD implanted, then became a volunteer for the American Heart Association. I am living proof that the work that we do and the money that we raise helps to save lives, because I am alive today because of the American Heart Association.

Not every story ends this way, in fact, in 2012, I lost my 50-year-old sister, Joanne, to heart disease unexpectedly. It is a lesson to all of us that heart disease can happen to anyone at any time and unfortunately, she became the 1 in 3 women who died from heart disease and she is a big reason why fighting heart disease and stroke is important to me.

Also, for me personally, raising two teenage boys who come home and tell me about the amount of smoking and e-cigarette use in school is alarming. Children using these devices, who think they are not harmful and just flavor and water, are becoming the next generation of addicts. E-cigarettes are filled with chemicals and nicotine and are in fact, very dangerous.

The American Heart Association worked very hard to keep tobacco out of the hands of children, and it seems that the companies developing these products are finding new ways to appeal to children that will have long lasting effects on the health of Mainers. It should be important to everyone in the State of Maine that we do our part to change policy and have more regulation over the use of e-cigarettes.

The road that led me here has been long and not always easy, but I live each day with a grateful heart. If not for the American Heart Association, and all those who are committed to the cause, I know I would not be alive today. Thank you for doing your part; it is this collaborative effort on everyone’s part that has made it possible for me to be a survivor and the reason I share my story for others who can’t.

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