“I wasn’t at risk.”
“There was no sign anything was wrong.”
“I’d just had a physical.”
For every story about someone whose health or lifestyle made them a likely candidate for a heart attack, there’s another narrative: the seemingly healthy person with no warning flags who had one. That’s why it’s wise to not only be aware of all risk factors, but also take the steps necessary to keep an eye on heart health.
Heart disease is responsible for nearly 1 in 4 deaths in Tennessee
When it comes to heart disease, any of these risks, particularly in combination, is of concern:
- High blood pressure or cholesterol
- Being overweight, obese or physically inactive
- Family history of heart disease
- Unhealthy diet
- Age (65+)
- Gender (men are more at-risk, though numbers climb for women 55+)
While there’s no cure for getting older or for rewriting family history, the other red flags can be addressed and reduced. Here are stories from three different survivors of cardiac problems, none of whom fit the typical profile for heart issues. These survivors are also BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee employees who helped support the Chattanooga Heart Walk.
Advice from survivors
Take control of your health and appreciate every day.
Heart disease doesn’t discriminate. Justin Lewis knows that all too well. Lewis was born with congenital heart defects, including two holes in his heart. He had to be revived twice shortly following his birth, and he spent a month in the neonatal intensive care unit, undergoing surgery to repair his heart.
He developed slowly due to a narrowing of the pulmonary valve, which required open-heart surgery at age three. Having spent his life living with cardiac issues and undergoing many tests with his cardiologist, he wants to encourage people to take charge of their health and enjoy the everyday experiences that some don’t get to share.
“Heart disease doesn’t care who you are,” says Lewis. “It doesn’t have sides. A lot of people take life for granted.”
Cardiac events can happen to anyone, any time.
Devonna Murray is described as a walking miracle. She suffered — and survived — a very rare condition called an aortic dissection, which occurs when the force of blood moving through the aorta causes the layers of the vessel to split. It began when she was attending an event at work and noticed a pain in her chest. It struck her as odd, but it didn’t seem like something she needed to worry about. When the pain came back later, it had moved from her chest to the area between her shoulder blades.
“It was a burning, searing pain, and it felt like my back was on fire,” she says.
As she and a coworker headed toward their workplace clinic, she collapsed. She was transported to a nearby hospital; surgery and a lengthy recovery followed.
“It doesn’t matter if you work out and eat healthy,” she says. “I didn’t fit the typical profile for someone with an aortic dissection: I’m not a man; I didn’t have high blood pressure. The only thing they can attribute it to is family history — my mother had an abdominal aortic aneurysm. The doctor told my family my heart was in perfect shape. There were no blockages; the aorta just shredded.”
Knowing your history and trusting your gut may save your life.
“Heart disease runs on both sides of my family, but I didn’t really think about it — you never want to think that it’s going to happen to you,” says Casie Harmon. But in 2015, she learned the importance of knowing your family history and trusting your gut.
That was the year Harmon started having chest pains. Initially, she attributed the discomfort to asthma, which she’d had since she was five. But when the pain became more regular, she went to the doctor. Her stress test came back normal, but the pains persisted. Given her family history, she kept pushing for answers. Eventually an arteriogram showed two blockages, and her doctor scheduled bypass surgery. During surgery, he found a third blockage.
“One was 50%, one was 60%, and the other was in the 30-40% range for blockage,” Harmon says. She remembers how the staff reacted when she went in for her arteriogram.
“I was 38 years old,” she says. “They wondered why I was there, and when I got my results, they said I proved them wrong. It’s not an older person’s disease, and it doesn’t just hit people who are overweight — it doesn’t care what you look like or what your age is. It’s serious, and if something doesn’t feel right, you need to pursue it.”
What to do
According to the American Heart Association, prevention is a lifetime endeavor.
- Do the things that can reduce your chances, including:
- Eating healthily
- Keeping weight under control
- Monitoring your diabetes
- Quitting smoking
- Getting your cholesterol checked,
- And don’t go it alone. This is the perfect opportunity to get to know your primary care physician better, says Dr. Ian Hamilton, Jr., corporate medical director at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.
“The most important thing is to have your risk of heart disease assessed by your primary care physician,” Dr. Hamilton says. While people can do a lot of research and self-education, he says it’s good to get outside support, particularly if you have hereditary risk factors.
2 of every 3 adults in Tennessee is overweight or obese
“There are major risk factors for heart disease that cannot be modified or reduced,” he says. “Eating healthy, exercising and keeping one’s weight at goal will not change these non-modifiable risk factors. If those are particularly high, someone can have a heart attack despite ‘clean living,’ and that heart attack can be at a young age. That’s why it’s so essential everyone have their risk assessed and get a care plan or follow-up plan based on that risk.”