Archie's Message about Heart Health

We have likely all lost someone we love to heart disease. Personally, my family lost Olivia’s mom to a heart attack way too soon. This month is American Heart Month, and I hope we all will use it as a catalyst to learn how to make healthier choices and prevent premature deaths.

Heart disease can affect anyone at any age. A perfect example of that is the story of my colleague here at Thibodaux Regional, Jen Hale. She was diagnosed with Dilated Cardiomyopathy in her late 30’s, despite never having tried a cigarette or illegal drugs. Jen lived an active lifestyle and subscribed to a healthy diet. However, she also had a family history of heart problems. That history became a personal reality for her when a virus attacked her heart and triggered massive stretching on her heart’s left side. Here is Jen’s story, in her own words.

“I lost my father and best friend, Special Agent Rodney Hale, to heart failure when he was 50-years-old, just a few weeks after I graduated high school. I count his death as one of the most difficult, defining moments in my life. Odd thing is, as much as his death affected me, I had no idea I could inherit his heart problems.

The predicament of heart disease and who it can affect only became devastatingly clear to me 3-years-ago, when I myself was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy after months of strange symptoms. Doctors told me the realistic prognoses were either a 5-year-life-expectancy or a heart transplant. Mercifully, after 2 years of waiting and trying different medicines, it turns out I’m in the minority of dilated cardiomyopathy patients whom find medication to be effective in remodeling a damaged heart. I feel silly now for letting my condition deteriorate so badly: when I was finally diagnosed, my heart was down to 16% pumping capacity. Shouldn’t I have known the risks and the warning signs of heart disease, the preventative tests I should have been underdoing - since my father, uncle and grandfather all died at age 50 or below of heart trouble?

Looking back, yes, I should have. The reality though is that I didn’t. I was a female, non-smoker who didn’t even eat red meat; I did cycle, run, cross fit and lift weights several times a week. I was good to go, because of my age and healthy lifestyle, right? In my mind, even though I had a family history, I was too young, too fit, too healthy to worry about heart trouble. I’d pay attention and get checked when I was “older.”

Excusing, ignoring, justifying the symptoms of heart failure almost cost me my future. I wish I’d put the pieces together sooner. I wish I’d read about someone healthy, in their 30’s, with my symptoms. Then maybe I wouldn’t have chalked up the constant exhaustion to a busy stretch of work, my increasing shortness of breath to allergies or acid reflux, all the swelling to retaining water because of food allergies or eating too much salt.

Please believe me when I say that you need to be aware of what symptoms like these could mean in terms of heart trouble, especially if you have a family history of heart disease. Genes are powerful things that deliver blessings, sometimes curses.

One of my biggest mistakes: I thought heart attacks and heart failure were the same thing, triggered by an unhealthy lifestyle and eating fried foods that clogged your arteries. Looking back at my dad’s medical records, they do say “heart failure.” All these years though, in my mind, I incorrectly remembered “heart attack” because I didn’t differentiate between the two. Yes, both conditions fall under the “heart disease” category, but they are actually very different.

In broad terms, a heart attack usually happens suddenly because blood flow, and therefore the heart’s oxygen supply, is cut off (generally from a blocked artery). Heart failure usually develops gradually: your heart muscle gets weaker and weaker, your heart pumps less and less blood throughout your body, eventually your heart simply stops. Heart failure can be caused by a multitude of things -including cardiomyopathy. The good news is, we now know so much more about what causes heart disease. Cardiologists have many weapons to treat it and enable you to lead a full life. Help doctors help you. If I had told doctors throughout the years that my family history involved heart failure instead of a heart attack, perhaps they would have suggested precautionary tests that would have identified my problem early on.”

Thankfully Jen has made a near-full recovery, but her nightmare is a clear example of why it’s important for us all to know our family history and receive the proper screenings. Catching issues early immensely increases one’s chances of recovery. Thibodaux Regional’s Heart & Vascular Center is equipped with the latest state-of-the-art technology to help you get those screenings quickly and easily. The Center’s technology and expertly trained medical personnel can also evaluate warning signs, identify issues when they’re still minor, or address life threatening events so you can make the fullest recovery possible.

This February, let’s all challenge ourselves to be pro-active against heart disease. Get screened, upgrade your diet, commit to walking the neighborhood or coming to an exercise class at our Fitness Center a few times a week. It’s also the perfect time to document your family medical history in case you or your loved ones ever need it. Write down who experienced what symptoms or diagnoses and when. A few pro-active measures could make a lot of difference in the length and quality of your life.