My Aunt Judy
Before I began my lifelong journey in a career dedicated to heart health, February was just another month with a holiday. Valentine’s Day held no other significance than the hope of receiving a declaration of true love from a significant other, along with some chocolate, flowers, and if I was especially lucky, a romantic dinner at an exclusive restaurant. That was when I was in my early twenties, and now that I am, let’s just say, not twenty, this particular month and day have a deeper significance. Considering that Valentine’s Day is the holiday where we celebrate those we cherish, significant others, parents, children, family, and friends, it is incredibly appropriate that we focus on the heart, the ultimate symbol of love in February. When I think about the fact that heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, I realize that everyone, at some point in their lives, will be impacted. Such an acknowledgment about the reach of heart disease, whether it be through a loved one, or themselves, makes me take a moment to pause.
I count myself among the numbers of people impacted by heart disease, as I’ve been witness to family and friends who have been inflicted. All are significant, but the one who comes to mind today is my Aunt Judy. Aunt Judy was a powerhouse of a woman. At roughly five foot one or two, her pleasantly plump frame belied nothing of the fire within. She had a witty sense of humor and when she smiled, it went all the way to her eyes, which twinkled with mirth and possessed a mischievous glint. She was energetic, unbelievably fun, kind, generous, blunt, direct, and painfully honest. Basically, she was a simple woman who loved life and all it had to offer.
Gradually, as Aunt Judy aged, she began to slow down. She became tired and couldn’t keep up with her former self. It became necessary for her to take frequent breaks and rest, as she was often exhausted and became winded. This led to weight gain, which in turn contributed to her physical limitations. Aunt Judy found that she could no longer walk, even for short distances, and became increasingly dependent on her husband to help her with tasks she formerly did by herself. He drove her to her errands, like grocery shopping, and dropped her off at the entrance while he parked the car because she could not make the walk from the car to the store.
All of this was contributed to the aging process and weight gain. She was advised to exercise and lose weight, which was all but impossible considering her physical limitations. She grew increasingly limited. Aunt Judy, however, knew in her gut that this was more than age, and something was seriously wrong. She pushed for a cardiac workup and had a cardiac catheterization scheduled at the facility where I worked. Since she was a relative, I was pulled from her procedure but was able to be present for moral support. Based on her symptoms, we expected a normal study, or at best, mild disease. Nothing could have prepared us for what happened.
A Lethal and Silent Killer
The first image revealed one of the tightest left main lesions that I had ever seen. For the sake of clarification, the left main artery branches off to two other arteries that supply blood to two-thirds of the heart muscle. An ostial left main lesion is a lesion in the very beginning of the left main artery. In the cardiac world, we call this particular lesion “the widow maker” because, in the case of its abrupt closure (heart attack), it is impossible to survive.
The lesion was so tight, and abrupt closure so imminent, that my aunt was prepared for immediate surgery and rushed to the operating room for open-heart surgery. I will never forget the look of fear on her face as I tried to comfort her in the few short seconds that I had while her world spun quickly out of her control.
Fortunately, the surgery was a success. Aunt Judy recovered, and my family was able to enjoy her beautiful self for years to follow. It was divine grace, luck, and my aunt’s tenacity to listen to her gut feelings that saved her life. Aunt Judy never experienced chest or arm pain. She had none of the classic symptoms that accompany heart disease and yet, it almost took her life. Her experience is the perfect example of how heart disease is such a lethal and silent killer of women. It is important to remember that women often do not present with the same indicators as men. They may experience flu-like symptoms, fullness in their chest, jaw, back, stomach, or neck pain, sweating, nausea, shortness of breath, or fatigue. Often, as caretakers, women are more likely to put off these symptoms as their main focus is on their family and/or loved ones.
Valentine’s Day and the month of February have much more significance to me now. I will choose this month focus on my life choices and how they relate to a heart-healthy lifestyle and will encourage my loved ones to do the same. And, yes, I will wear red in honor of my Aunt Judy and all others who have shared in similar journeys. As you celebrate your relationships this Valentine’s Day, don’t forget to honor the amazing women in your life by supporting their heart health as well as your own. Wear red as a show of support and educate yourself and others. You never know, you just might save someone’s life, and if you’re anything like my Aunt Judy, that life might be your own.
Author: Joyce Froetschel