“I Survived Two Heart Attacks”

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Heart Stethoscope

Heart disease is responsible for one in four deaths in the U.S. every year, but this mom of three was able to beat it—and you could too. In an eye-opening guest post, she describes her battle with cardiovascular disease and the serious symptoms she ignored that you never should.By JULIA ALLEN

The bathroom floor at my job was cold and felt good against my face as I was lying there out of breath, dry heaving and dizzy. “Get up. Get back to work,” I kept telling myself.

That was Friday, April 15, 2013, the day my life changed forever. But it started out like any other. I got up at 6:30 a.m., before my three boys—Brock, 14, Bryce, 11, and Miles, 7—and worked myself into a typical frenzy trying to get everyone dressed, fed and out the door on time.

I arrived at my job as branch supervisor at a bank and went through my regular routine: answering emails, dialing into conference calls and putting out fires. Suddenly, I felt a twisting pain in my chest and had difficulty taking my next breath. Then came heartburn, jaw tightening and, the worst part, nausea. An hour later, around 9:30 a.m., I was lying on those bathroom tiles in hopes of calming down and feeling better.

At first, I convinced myself  it was the flu. But I told myself I needed to save my sick days for when my kids became ill. I didn’t want to incur unnecessary bills or wait in the emergency room only to hear that nothing was seriously wrong. I needed to be at work to make sure my team was okay. Clearly, my own health and well-being were not a priority!

The symptoms came and went several times throughout that day, but as the hours passed, they only became more intense. Eventually I remembered a billboard about heart disease and the color red I had previously spotted on the highway in Charlotte, so I decided to Google it and found the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign. As I sat at my desk scrolling through the tales of brave women sharing their experiences, I realized I was fighting the reality that I too could be having a heart attack.

Six hours after my initial symptoms appeared, I called my husband and doctor to explain what I was feeling. They both told me to go straight to the hospital, but I still couldn’t put myself first. After leaving work, I first stopped at home to leave my family a note and make some snacks for the kids.

Almost as soon as I got to the front desk of the ER around 2:30 p.m., I collapsed. I had my second heart attack in the hospital that evening. I lay in bed thinking, “Is this really it? Is life ending this way?” I had so many goals I still wanted to achieve. I prayed to God that he would let me live. And he did.

I was in the hospital for about five days. The doctor told me I needed to lose weight, exercise more, cut back on salt and sugar and, most important, put my own health at the top of my to-do list. I then spent three months doing cardiac rehab, which included monitored cardio and strengthen training, nutrition counseling and therapy.

Since my family has a history of heart disease, everyone has been tested and we’ve made changes to our food habits and physical activity. To start, my kids, husband and I each suggested one swap, which included avoiding sugary drinks like fruit punch and soda, adding more fruits and veggies to school lunches, giving up sweet cereals, eliminating fried foods, opting for leaner meats and having healthier snacks like yogurt, nuts and granola. I also began drinking a daily green smoothie (I love them!) and taking a walk every day during lunch. Now we’re all focused on heart-healthy living.

Some days are harder than others, but I make one good-for-me choice at a time—and my family is my motivation.The greatest lesson I’ve learned through this ordeal is that being healthy includes mind, body and soul. They all work together. So to other women I say, slow down, take care of your beautiful self and, please, make your heart a priority!

Julia Allen is 46 years old and lives in Charlotte, NC.  She’s a proud two-time heart attack survivor and national spokeswoman for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women.