By: Jennifer Hale, Fox Sports Sideline Reporter & Women’s Health Spokesperson for Thibodaux Regional Medical Center
The month of February delivers several annual professional highlights in my world: Super Bowl, the NBA All Star game and the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Personally, it’s a significant month as well, my father’s birthday and Heart Health Awareness Month. I lost my father, Special Agent Rodney Hale, to heart failure caused by cardiomyopathy when he was 50 years old, just a few weeks after I graduated high school at 17 years old.
The predicament of heart disease and who it can affect became devastatingly clear to me almost three years ago, when I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, after months of strange symptoms. Doctors told me the realistic prognoses were either a five-year life expectancy or a heart transplant. Mercifully, after two years of trying various medicines, it turns out I’m in the minority of dilated cardiomyopathy patients whom find medication to be effective in remodeling a damaged heart. I’m in that number of approximately one-third of dilated cardiomyopathy patients who can simply take medication a few times a day and avoid a transplant or a death sentence. There are many times I now feel silly and irresponsible for letting my condition deteriorate so badly; when I was finally diagnosed, my heart was down to 16% pumping capacity. Shouldn’t I have known the risks, the warning signs, the preventative tests – since my father, uncle and grandfather all died at age 50 or below of cardiomyopathy?
Looking back, yes, I should have. The reality though is that I didn’t. I was a female, non-smoker who had never tried illegal drugs. I didn’t even eat red meat, but I did cycle, run, CrossFit and lift weights several times a week. I was good to go, right? Wrong. Excusing, ignoring, justifying the symptoms of heart failure almost cost me my future. My intent isn’t to turn anyone into a hypochondriac. However, I wish I’d put the pieces together sooner. I wish I’d read about someone fit, in their 30s, with my symptoms. Then maybe I wouldn’t have chalked up the constant exhaustion to work, the increasing shortness of breath to allergies or acid reflux, all the swelling to retaining water because of food allergies or eating too much salt.
Please believe me when I say that you need to be aware of what symptoms like these could mean in terms of heart trouble, especially if you have a family history of heart disease. This February, take the time to write down that history in case you need it someday: who was diagnosed with what, their symptoms and at what point in their life this occurred. Genes are powerful things that deliver blessings, sometimes curses.
Another BIG mistake I made: I thought heart attacks and heart failure were the same thing, triggered by an unhealthy lifestyle and eating fried foods that clogged your arteries. Looking back at my dad’s medical records, they do say “heart failure.” All these years, in my mind, I incorrectly remembered “heart attack” because I didn’t differentiate between the two. Yes, both conditions fall under the “heart disease” category, but they are actually very different. In broad terms, a heart attack usually happens suddenly because blood flow is cut off, and therefore the heart’s oxygen supply – generally from a blocked artery. Heart failure usually develops gradually: your heart muscle gets weaker and weaker, your heart pumps less and less blood throughout your body, eventually your heart simply stops. Heart failure can be caused by a multitude of things – including cardiomyopathy. There are four known types of cardiomyopathy. The good news is we now know so much more about what causes heart disease. Cardiologists have many weapons to treat it and enable you to lead a full life. Help doctors help you by paying attention to tell-tale symptoms, catching problems early and having a detailed family history ready. If I had told doctors in checkups throughout the years that my family history involved heart failure instead of a heart attack, perhaps they would have suggested precautionary tests that would have identified the problem early on.
Despite not identifying my heart failure until it was critical, I’m blessed enough to be off the heart transplant list, living an amazing life. Now, there is virtually nothing I’m restricted from doing, other than redlining my heart rate when I exercise. Yes, I do rest more, take medication daily and AVOID second-hand smoke. However, I’m doing virtually anything I want to, including continuing my career.
This month, when I go to New York City to cover the Westminster Dog Show, I’ll be part of a Westminster contingency that’s joining forces with the American Heart Association and New York Fashion Week to raise awareness about heart disease. Instead of lying in bed awaiting a transplant…or worse… I get to walk the red carpet with adorable dogs and share my story. More than anything, I credit God with not being done with me yet. I figure He must have a reason for that. Please learn from my mistakes and be proactive when it comes to heart disease, for you and your family.