Taking Charge of your Heart Health
By Whitney Mann, Public Health Program Representative
February is American Heart Month. 28 days set aside for all people to focus on their cardiovascular health. It’s also an opportunity for people to better understand their own risk factors for heart disease and learning how to live a heart-healthy lifestyle. These steps are lifesaving in all walks of life.
This is my very first Heart Month as a Heart patient and I am sharing my story in hopes of bringing awareness to the importance of advocating for your own heart health.
Understanding my risk factors and taking charge of my health
According to The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) Heart Disease is a catch-all phrase for a variety of conditions that affect the heart’s structure and function. These conditions can include coronary artery disease which leads to Heart Attack or stroke, heart arrythmias, heart failure, heart valve disease, pericardial disease, cardiomyopathy, and congenital heart diseases.
I have a strong family history of cardiovascular disease. My dad had his first heart attack at 40 and his second, which required a triple bypass, at 52. I also lost both my paternal grandparents young to coronary artery disease. For these, and other personal reasons, I started my 27th year of life in March of 2022 with a focus on improving my physical health. For me, this looked like daily physical activity in the form of runs, paying attention to my diet, and overall working to keep a better eye on my well-being.
NHLBI’s Self Care tips for Heart Health includes the statement: “How can technology help with caring for your heart? — Technology can be your heart’s best friend!” Unintentionally, this became very true for me. Part of improving my well-being involved upgrading the wearable technology I was using on my wrist. In August of 2022, I got a new smart watch in hopes to sync my outdoor runs with other workout apps I was using. I didn’t know at the time that this was extremely important in what would become my heart journey.
Paying attention to Heart Healthy Numbers
On my first day with my new smart watch, I was immediately intrigued by my heart rate consistently reading around 40 beats per minute (BPM). At this point in time, I was 5 months into my running journey and had worked up to an average of 15–20 miles per week. Instead of concern, I thought, “Wow, my heart is so healthy!” A week later, I woke up to my first 8 low heart rate notifications. My watch had notified me that my heart had gone into the 30s for an extended period overnight.
Immediately, I went to the internet where I first learned about bradycardia. I read on the American Heart Association Website: “In general, for adults, a resting heart rate of fewer than 60 BPM qualifies as bradycardia.” This is when I first realized that my heart rate may be abnormal. However, I continued reading: “There are exceptions. Your heart rate may fall below 60 BPM during deep sleep. Physically active adults (and athletes) often have a resting heart rate slower than 60 BPM.”
Since I was running, and my notifications occurred overnight, I decided to rest in the fact that there were many reasons my heart rate could have been low and not all of them were bad. I even questioned if my watch band had been secured improperly during sleep. Unfortunately, the low heart rate notifications happened again, and I realized I could no longer ignore that there may be something going on. Knowing that an average adult should be around 60 BPM, and many variables can affect heart rate, I decided to talk with my doctor.
Speak up for yourself, be your own advocate.
In September, I had an annual exam scheduled with my provider. I will admit, I was very nervous to bring up my low heart rate because all my information was coming from online sources and my smart watch. When she asked if I had any concerns, I hesitated, and then told her about the low notifications I’d seen. She asked my lowest reading, which was 36 BPM, and made the decision to order a 2-week cardiac event monitor, a wearable device that constantly records the activity of your heart. She reassured me that this was an easy way to make sure everything looked okay and, if needed, we would discuss more when the results came in.
I started wearing the cardiac event monitor the next week. During this time, my son had an accident and cut the soft skin near his eye. Trying to care for him, I passed out at the sight of his blood. Within an hour I received a call that the doctors reading the results from the monitor had detected a “significant event”, and I needed to be evaluated at the ER immediately. I was completely expecting this to be a fluke, but it was far from it. While at the ER, I learned that my heart had stopped for 9.1 seconds when I passed out. I later learned that directly after, it stopped for a longer period of 11 seconds. It was initially very hard to wrap my brain around how serious this was. While these time frames seem so small, they amounted to time my heart was not beating and my body and brain were without oxygen. I was very lucky that my heart restarted and that I didn’t go into cardiac arrest. However, this was not normal.
I was immediately admitted to the hospital and, at 27 years of age, became a cardiology patient for the first time. I quickly received a diagnosis of Sick Sinus Syndrome, a type of heart rhythm disorder. It affects the heart’s natural pacemaker (sinus node), which controls the heartbeat. When I passed out, I experienced vasovagal syncope, a type of fainting that happens when the body overreacts to certain triggers, such as the sight of blood. Typically, a trigger for vasovagal syncope causes your heart rate and blood pressure to drop suddenly. However, in my case, my heart stopped completely. I’ve been told by multiple doctors and nurses that I was so lucky to have been on an event monitor at just the right time to record this information for the doctors to be able use for my treatment.
Because I had documented bradycardia paired with significant pauses, I was put under the care of an Electrophysiologist. These doctors specialize in treating cardiac problems involving the electrical activity of the heart and irregular heartbeats. Mine was very caring and thorough as he explained that my best treatment option would be a permanent pacemaker, a device that controls the beat of the heart. The questions we were asking became not “if” this would happen again, but “when” and as a mother to two small children I did not have the option to take a risk in waiting. It was wild, but less than 24 hours after my fainting episode, I received a pacemaker.
Setting the pace for your future.
It was incredibly humbling to learn firsthand how multifaceted heart health and heart disease can be. I can certainly say that I did not in my wildest imagination think that the electrical function of my heart would ever be a concern I’d face in my lifetime, let alone in my twenties.
While this was a life-changing experience that could have easily been incredibly overwhelming, I know the proactive steps I took to better my well-being provided me with an ability to easily receive a complex diagnosis. Had I not taken my family history seriously, I wouldn’t have been on the wellness journey I embarked upon this year. Had I not been paying attention to my heart rate and noticed that it was outside of its normal limits, I would not have spoken with my doctor or received the event monitor that caught my diagnosis. Had I not caught my diagnosis, I don’t want to begin to think about what could have happened.
With my story in mind, I hope you take a moment to do one thing to improve your cardiovascular health this heart month; Increase your physical activity. Pay attention to your body. Advocate for yourself. It’s important and worthwhile. I can assure you that it’s incredibly rare to get a pacemaker at my age, but that doesn’t change the fact that heart health is vitally important. So many other conditions can affect an individual’s heart and change one’s life in the same way at any given moment. We only have one body that we get to care for throughout one life. I’m lucky to have 20 combined seconds worth of flat line to bring that into perspective. What you do today should prepare your body for tomorrow. Are you making the changes to help you get there?
Whitney Mann oversees Outreach for Springfield Greene County Health as a Public Health Program Representative. She came to SGCH and Public Health in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis in October 2020 to aid in outreach for prevention and later vaccine. Prior to coming to the Department she was the Program Director for Safe and Sober and responsible for creating and delivering prevention content to school partners across the state of Missouri.