Today is the third day of 14valentines and the topic is Health. I was going to post a fanmix, but the only one I can come up for health this year is a mourning mix. </lj>
February is the American Heart Month. To quote the American Heart Association, “cardiovascular diseases, including stroke, are this nation’s number one killer.”
And yeah, we hear that statistic all the time. What does it mean to you? Does it mean, “Oh, the only person I know who’s had a heart attack is Old Joe Brown and everyone knows he doesn’t eat properly. No wonder he had a heart attack.”
Does it meant that your family has history of heart disease? Or does it, as it does for me, mean something else?
For me, it means that I turned twenty years old on January 23rd, and for the first time in nearly a decade, my phone did not ring at a godawful time of the morning. Yeah, people called to wish me well, to say happy birthday, but the one constant did not. And the next morning, on what would have been my best friend’s twentieth birthday, I found myself reflecting on what it means to be alive. On what it means to be healthy. And at one point, my best friend’s roommate texted me to say that it was going to be February soon and that the entire month was going to suck royally.
Because what the American heart month means to us this year is that a heart attack isn’t the only heart-related malady that can kill someone.
If I may, I’d like to share with you our story, the one that means that we’re going to be remembering that statistic for a long, long time. The one that had me depressed on my birthday.
At nearly twenty years old, K was overweight, but had lost at least twenty pounds in the last year alone. She went to the gym and worked out; she was starting to feel good about herself and her body image for the first time in years. She’d still call from time to time and say, “I’ve got heartburn” or “I’m not feeling good—maybe it’s the stomach flu.”
And I’d tease her back, “Yeah, maybe it’s the black plague,” because K had been a hypochondriac from early childhood on. She knew it; I knew it; hell, even her shrink knew it. So we laughed, and she kept her blood pressure down, and worked to combat her cholesterol, and did everything she could to be as healthy as possible. But in the end, it turned out that, in a roundabout way, she wasn’t as much of a hypochondriac as we accused her of being.
Because what none of us knew was that she really was very ill. Because sometimes, you can feel fine, you can look perfectly healthy, and yet, deep inside your body there is a bomb waiting to go off. In K’s case, the bomb was just waiting for the perfect moment. It had sent out a few signals—some of which we dismissed as “That’s just K’s hypochondria” or her father’s not-so-tactful “Well, hon, you’re overweight” because those signals were so very subtle. Sweating, not being able to catch her breath, a bit of dizziness now and then, being overtired sometimes—none of which we realized at the time were symptoms of a larger problem.
And then one morning, October 5th, 2008, she called her boyfriend to tell him not to text her that morning. She didn’t feel well, she said. We’ll talk later, she said. He was nervous—he texted her every morning, terrified for some odd reason that he couldn't explain that one morning he wouldn’t, and she would never wake up. Her mother called her at 11 am and they talked for a little bit before K said, “I’m so dizzy” and the line. went. dead.
The paramedics got there forty minutes later after navigating through a maze of card access only hallways and dormitories. The precautions meant to keep the residents safe came at the cost of many precious minutes. She wasn’t breathing when they got there; her heart was barely beating.
They shouldn’t been able to bring any of her back, the paramedics said later, when everything was said and done. After she’d been in a coma for four and a half long, long days. After it was obvious that whatever caused her lose consciousness had taken her away. Had taken her brain functions, and left a shell of the girl we loved. After our family felt bruised and broken and splintered without her.
After her parents called each of her friends, at least the ones they knew and loved, and told of us that they were going to let her go. That the machines weren’t really keeping her alive—just a husk. And after those of us who were told had to stop screaming and regain our composure long enough to spread the word.
When we let her go, we still didn’t know what had turned a healthy, vibrant young woman at the beginning of her life into a husk; didn’t know what had taken her away. During the four days she’d been in the hospital, we gone over every possible reason we could think of. Her roommate, her stepmom, and I spent hours running down what we did know until we had list of what it wasn’t. We did know that she hadn’t taken her life. We did know that it wasn’t a reaction to medication. We did know that she’d a stomach flu and had felt horrible the night before—that was why she hadn’t wanted to wake up to talk to her boyfriend that morning. We did know what medications she’d taken for it; we did know that she wasn’t allergic to any of it. That still meant that we didn’t know what it could have been; the tests the hospital had run were inconclusive.
When someone dies of unknown causes in the state of Washington, there has to be an autopsy. And even though we felt like it was slightly invasive, like someone was saying, “Well, we don’t know what killed her—maybe it was someone she loved” in our time of grief, the coroner actually answered the big question within a short amount of time. When the coroner explored her heart, he found a birth defect. She had died of myocardial bridging—a defect where an artery, instead of going where it’s supposed to in the heart actually goes through the heart muscle. It isn’t supposed to be dangerous and it isn’t…most of the time. There are some ways to treat it, either with surgery or with medication. Both keep the muscle contracting at the same time as the artery is contracting; that way, the blood still flows to your heart. But as you get older, the muscle and artery sometimes stop contracting and relaxing at the same time. When happens, you stop getting blood and the heart stops beating correctly.
More or less, this healthy, happy, intelligent young woman died because no one knew to look for the defect. Yes, the vast majority of defects never really end up impacting the body, but some do. The symptoms that she’d shown on and off would have pointed to a severe case of myocardial bridging if we had known what we were supposed to be looking for. If any of her doctors had suspected, they could have tried to test—yes, the test isn’t the best and the results are often incorrect. But at least we could have been watchful.
Instead of getting her for many happy years, we got nineteen of them. I don’t blame anyone; it happens. But I do wish that we realized that the outward appearance of health can be misleading. I wish we had known that there was a congenital heart defect. I wish that when the American Heart Association reminded people that many heart diseases and defects are caused by genetic predisposition a little more often. I wish that women everywhere got tested for as many heart related diseases and defects as they could, because heart disease claims more and more women every year.
And while I’m tossing out insane pleas like that previous one, I hope to God that no one else ever has to go through the pain of finding out that there are ways to keep the heart on track. While researching the condition later, after the funeral, and after I’d returned to college, I found out that, contrary to what the doctor told her parents, with severe defects like the one she had, the test does normally find it. That there are medications that would have prevented what occurred. The doctor in question hadn’t known of more recent studies about myocardial bridging—he hadn’t even known that it doesn’t kill most people who have it.
I guess what I’m saying, in a roundabout sort of way, is that I want doctors to be well informed. I want them to know as much as possible so that they can help the largest amount of patients. I want women to know the dangers, to be well informed of the risks to their health. I want there to be more information shared between doctors and patients. I want more women to live, to not die of heart disease, stroke, and heart defects.
I want more people to know the statistics:
*Although heart disease is sometimes thought of as a "man's disease," it is the leading cause of death for both women and men in the United States, and women account for 52.6 percent of the total heart disease deaths.
*In 2005, heart disease was the cause of death in more than 454,000 females. 
*Heart disease is often perceived as an "older woman's disease," and it is the leading cause of death among women aged 65 years and older. However, heart disease is the third leading cause of death among women aged 25–44 years and the second leading cause of death among women aged 45–64 years. Remember that many cases of heart disease can be prevented! 
I want more people to take advantage of the US's WISEWOMAN program, which provides heart health screening and intervention to women age 40 to 64 who don't have the insurance or the money to improve their health.
I want you to check out the heart disease risk assessment.
February is the American Heart Month. What do you know about your heart health?