The Courage to Change

Survivor Beth Woodard with husband Mark and their children Fiona and George
I would not live to see my 49th birthday.

That was my thought as I lay on the floor of our kitchen on a Friday evening. I would not learn for several more hours that I had had a heart attack.

Coronary blockage runs in our family. At age 61, my father had survived a septuple bypass that had, at the time, set a record at the teaching hospital where he had the procedure. I knew I was at risk. Yet in my late 40s, I led a sedentary lifestyle and ate far too many fast-food meals. When I “cooked,” it was often no more than putting a frozen family-size meal in the oven. My husband, Mark, and I both had nearly hour-long commutes — in opposite directions — to work and were often tired when we arrived home. So, convenience had become a priority.

For months I had been experiencing occasional discomfort in my chest when eating. I attributed it to eating too quickly when I was hungry. My husband thought I might have a hernia. It didn’t occur to me to mention it to my doctor, even though I saw one regularly.

That Friday, my day off, I had spent the morning with our teenage daughter, Fiona, at the DMV, where she was getting a state-issued ID so that she could vote in the coming primary elections. I attributed the tingling in my upper back to stress. We stopped on the way home at a Wendy’s, where I ate a hamburger and fries. When we got home, I took a couple of pain relievers and laid down for an hour. The tingling disappeared.

Several hours later, I went into the kitchen to give an evening snack to our daughter’s cat and our two miniature dachshunds. The room swirled. I thought, ‘I’m going to faint.

I should lie down.’ Evidently, I didn’t make it all the way to the ground before passing out. George, our 21-year-old son, a community college student, thought I was fooling around and asked me to quiet down. Our 17-year-old daughter, a high school junior, came out to see what was going on — and found me on the floor.

While our son called 911, our daughter, not knowing what to do, performed chest compressions. My husband arrived home at 7:30 that evening to find half a dozen EMTs surrounding me.

In the emergency department, several hours later, the doctor came into the cubicle. “We’ve figured out what’s going on,” he said.

“Oh, good,” I said. Then, “Oh — not good. Right?”

“Right,” he said. “You’ve had a heart attack.” I wasn’t as surprised as I was angry. How could this have happened? Later, as I reflected on it, I realized that a good portion of the responsibility lay with myself. That night, as I lay in bed in the cardiac intensive care unit, I looked at my husband.

“No more fast food, no more junk,” I said.

He didn’t hesitate. “Right,” he said, nodding in agreement.

The next day, I received two stents in my anterior descending artery, which had been 90 percent blocked at the top and 70 percent blocked lower down. I was discharged two days later.

Mark and I both realized how close I had come to dying. My last moments might have been on a kitchen floor on a Friday evening. I didn’t want that to happen ever again. I

was embarrassed that it had taken a heart attack to wake me up, but I was also determined to do what I could to make changes.

My first day home, following the instructions of the cardiologist, I set the timer on my phone and shuffled up the street for 2½ minutes before turning around for a grand total of five minutes. I felt weak and tired, and I probably looked like a patient in my pajamas and slippers. But I walked. The next day, I increased it to six minutes, then seven. In a couple of weeks, I was able to go around the block.

I joined a gym, and our grocery cart began to contain a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables. Eating out is now an occasional indulgence instead of daily fare. And I carry a water bottle with me everywhere I go. Working out five times a week might not be something I look forward to, but I certainly enjoy the increased energy and the feel of my muscle groups working as they are meant to. I’ve lost almost 40 pounds and hope to lose another 20 to 30. I’ve decreased my BMI, and my measurements are closer to what they should be.

Best of all, I recently celebrated turning 50. It’s a milestone I never thought I would reach. And while genetics might have played a role in my heart attack, I am responsible for the lifestyle changes that will keep it from happening again.

Our Heartfelt department highlights our readers’ experiences with heart disease from their own perspective. We’re always looking for contributions, so please send us yours. Before submitting, please review our Writer’s Guidelines.

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