As a 31-year-old teacher, runner and doctoral student, I would have never thought I would have a heart attack. In fact, I’d even say I felt invincible. Who doesn’t at 31? I had just run my first half-marathon, was training for a full marathon, had lost 30 pounds and was feeling great. Life was moving and I was along for the ride.
After the start of this year, I had been abnormally tired for weeks. I was so tired that I tried to do an early morning run and fell, hurting my knee. In the process of nursing my knee back to health I also noticed that I developed a cyst on the back of my head and numbness in my hands and feet. I stopped running, even slept 12 hours a night but nothing seemed to make a difference.
Finally I was so frustrated with the fatigue that I broke down in the first five minutes of a run that I told myself I could do. I brought myself to an urgent care facility, where blood work was ordered and I was given a neurological consult and sent home.
That afternoon the chest pains began. I had a Sex and the City flashback to when Miranda said she was going to die alone and the cat would eat her face off, so I brought myself to another urgent care that night, where I was given a mono test and an EKG. Since both came back fine, I was sent home again. The pain continued in waves for the next two days. I went to my teaching job, and went home to go back to sleep.
Tuesday I was feeling slightly better until the drive home. Suddenly the pain was worse than before. Thinking it wasn't a heart attack, I walked the dog and drove myself to the ER (Oprah would be proud of my multitasking skills). They did an EKG and a chest X-ray, saying I wasn't having a heart attack.
It wasn't until my troponin levels (which detect heart disorders) came back that anything was suspected. That night in the hospital I had a massive nosebleed and an abnormal EKG, prompting the cardiologist to do a cardiac catheterization.
I will never forget the moment they found the blockage—there was silence in the room. Then I heard, "She's only 31," "She's a runner" and "She has no risk factors." Not only did I have a heart attack, I had two, and it was due to a 99 percent blockage in my LAD, the left anterior descending artery, one of three major coronary arteries.
This type of heart attack is referred to as the “widow maker,” since there is about a 5 percent survival rate.
The doctors didn’t have many answers for me, other than telling me my blood is more viscous. People with more viscous, or thicker blood, may be at higher risk for heart attacks. I’ve never had long-term high blood pressure or high cholesterol, so it was kind of a fluke that it happened when and where it did.
Since January my life has changed dramatically. My normally upbeat, albeit slightly ridiculous self, has been on a roller coaster of emotions. Some days I am thankful to still be alive, and some days have been too dark to even mention.
I’ve had to confront a lot of realities about life that most 31-year-olds can’t even fathom. I still struggle with the word “survivor” (c’mon Destiny’s Child, give it another shot!) and I often have survivor’s guilt. I’ve been going to therapy, which I recommend for everyone regardless of their situation.
Being a dedicated yoga enthusiast for the past decade, I have tried to continue my practice from home. Yoga has always kept me sane, and without it I would be a hot mess. I’ve also tried a number of other alternative therapies including Reiki, massage, meditation and acupuncture. Most of these adventures spawned from my completely unhealthy addiction to Groupon, but were worth trying.
I’m also back to running. Sure, I move at a snail’s pace and I’m that totally geeky girl in the back of the pack with the heart rate monitor beeping, but I’m running! OK, you got me—I’m jogging.
My goal is to complete the Lady Speed Stick Women’s Half Marathon on November 18th in St Petersburg, Florida. I just want to FINISH. Not beat any certain time, not put any immense amount of pressure on my shoulders, just be present and enjoy the fact that I am doing it.
From there I’d like to start training for the New York City marathon and run with the American Heart Association team. Crossing the finish line in my home state would be the icing on the lucky cake.
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Sarah Klena is a doctoral student and teacher who writes about her experiences following two heart attacks on her blog, Heart Attack at 31.