Monday, February 4, 2008

The Red Dress

Red wasn't my favorite color.  As a natural redhead it clashes with my hair.   It draws attention, not all of it welcome.  In fact, if you looked in my closet three years ago, you wouldn't find much red.  

Today I still don't have a lot of red in my closet, but what is there, I wear with pride and gratitude.   In case you haven't heard, February is heart health month.  And the Red Dress campaign is directed at women's heart health.

There are a lot of great causes out there, and I try to support as many of them as I can.  But this one has a personal connection for me.   In my late 30's, I started experiencing some strange symptoms.  My normally low blood pressure would shoot up.  My heart would race and skip like a classroom full of preschoolers.  While this sometimes happened at work, more often it happened around 2AM, waking me from a sound sleep.   

Symptoms like this are alarming, so I went to my doctor, where because of my age and other risk factors (normal blood pressure, normal cholesterol, normal weight, no irregular heartbeat that she could hear) the symptoms were attributed to anxiety.  I found a therapist who specializes in anxiety and learned all kinds of relaxation techniques, and learned everything I could about stress reduction.  Things seemed to be improving for awhile, then they would get worse, then improve, then get worse....  

Soon I found myself tiring easily, and unable to climb even a flight of stairs without being out of breath.   I again went to the doctor, and we decided I wasn't getting enough exercise so I started a mild exercise program that didn't seem to help much.  During the winter months I caught every flu bug that passed through town, but I had a kid in school, that hotbed of germ activity.

Finally during my annual physical the year I turned 40, my heartbeat was so audibly irregular and  I was immediately hooked to an EKG machine and the EKG was immediately taken to the cardiologist next door.   He said the skipping pattern was benign, but I should come in to have it checked out anyway.  

A few weeks later I went to the Cardiologist for a Stress-Echo.  As it turned out, I was born with an Atrial Septal Defect (ASD), basically a hole between the Atria in my heart.  Until 2001, the only fix for this would have been open heart surgery.  Thankfully science has provided and the FDA approved a non-invasive option that I was eligible for.  I had the device inserted in September 2005.  

The reason I'm sharing this is to urge every woman to trust their instincts when it comes to their own health.  I was pretty sure what I had went beyond anxiety, but it took three years for the symptoms to show up during an appointment with my Primary Care Physician.    They had shown up in a couple of urgent care appointments for various flu bugs, but not significantly enough for it to warrant more than "tell your PCP about this."  In retrospect, I should have pushed harder for alternative explanations to anxiety.  I was very lucky as many with this condition find out about it after a cardiac arrest.  

Irregular heartbeats are actually very common, but I had other symptoms that aren't that common:  the spike in blood pressure, the fact that this would wake me from a sound sleep, the shortness of breath, and chronic fatigue.  I frequently suffered from respiratory illnesses.  

Even if you feel fine - know your risk factors, know the symptoms of heart disease, and see your doctor regularly.  Exercise, eat healthy and manage stress.  And when you figure out the best way to do those last three -- let me know!  I try, but it's not easy.  

1 comment:

hulagirlatheart said...

I had no idea. I'm so glad you finally figured it out. Don't you think doctors sometimes brush women off as whiners? I wore my red last Friday, by the way.