When you read the words, “heart disease patient,” what comes to mind?
You probably think of an elderly person, well past retirement age. You might think about them clutching their chest in pain as they suffer through a heart attack.
Me, I think of my mother. My 40 something mother lying in a hospital bed, tubes and wires running through her black and blue bruised body. And my nine year old self watching from the doorway, too terrified to even cry.
My health history is my family’s health history. Its cardiovascular diseases and high cholesterol, the so-and-so had a stroke at this age, the distant older relative who went under the knife for another reason. But heart disease is the most prominent health problem, and has affected many of the women in my family.
Genetically, the cards are not dealt in my favor. Before I even turned 12, I was actively thinking about ways to prevent what I thought was inevitable–and by “inevitable,” I mean ending up on an operating table with people sawing open my chest. Although I wasn’t athletic, I’ve worked out regularly and engaged in activities like jogging, playing Just Dance or WiiFit games, swimming, or walking my dog. When I got to college, I kicked my routine up a few notches. I worked out using an elliptical and I did extensive weight training.
When I developed back problems and weight training proved to not be so great for my body, I turned my focus to managing my diet and incorporating high fiber foods into it. Still, I kept up the regular exercise. I’ve never been obese and regularly work to manage my weight and my sleeping schedule. I will never use tobacco in any capacity. Weed was easier to come by in college, but I didn’t put a joint to my lips out of fear that inhaling any form of smoke would put me one step closer to death. I don’t drink a lot of alcohol. And heck, while I may binge on the occasional cookie or eat a greasy meal every once in a while, I thought I did an overall excellent job managing my health.
So imagine my despair when at my most recent physical, I took a cholesterol test and my bad cholesterol level, or LDL, came back at 191 mg/dL. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these numbers, that’s extremely high. I remember reading my test results over and over again and the panic slowly rise in my stomach. How was this even possible? What did I do wrong?
Well, for one thing, I hadn’t fasted before I even took the damn test. I sat down with the nurse who explained that they wanted to do a blood test, just to get a baseline, since I’m now in my 20s. I thought about protesting, but they’re doctors, right? They should know better than me. So I didn’t protest or refuse, and I agreed to do it. (Big mistake.)
Immediately, I messaged my doctor about the test results. What should I do? She advised me to come back in two weeks to do another blood draw. This time I would fast before taking the test. If the results came back and they were still relatively high, we would discuss treatment options. If not, they would chalk it up to a lab error. A fairly reasonable solution to the problem, but it wasn’t enough to stop me from crying in my car after I got home from work. Crying as I realized that, even though I had dedicated so much of my energy to try to prevent this, that I couldn’t beat my own biology.
You might wonder why I felt so devastated in that moment. But many people don’t realize the implications of living with heart disease. Many people don’t understand that it’s a chronic illness. A lot of people think that once the surgeon fixes whatever’s wrong inside of you, it magically goes away. It never goes away. You spend the rest of your life taking and adding more medications to your pill box. Each drug has its own potentially debilitating side effects, such as blood thinners that’ll make you bruise black and blue if you just gently bump against a doorframe. You frequently meet with doctors, having more tests, and potentially, more surgeries. You cross your fingers and hope that you’ll be able to witness the next big milestone in your child’s life. You learn to deal with all the things that you can no longer be around, eat, or do. Want to eat white rice? Ooh, terrible idea for your health. Want to go on a rollercoaster ride with your kids? Aw, that’s really hard on your heart. Even worse, heart disease can be an invisible illness. If you met my mother, you wouldn’t think she had health problems–till you saw the scar on her chest.
It’s also fielding accusations that you didn’t take good care of yourself. My mother remained active throughout her life and was even slimmer than I am now. And she still ended up in an operating room, six months from death, at an unusually young age. There are the people who make the constant health suggestions: “Well have you tried this?” “Oh you shouldn’t be eating that.” “You should work out more!” “You should work out less.” And I’m not even going to touch on the health-fad people who bring up nonsensical treatments that are both a) discouraged by doctors and b) have no demonstrated benefits. Or the people who bring up the ONE solution that will seemingly fix all of life’s problems. “Consume ONE egg yolk mixed with a ¼ cup of pomegranate juice per day, and you will never have health problems!” Thanks Tiffany, but no thanks.
When I went in for my second test, I properly fasted. My blood was drawn and I was bandaged up and sent on my way. Midday, I checked my medical account at work. The results?
But not like, how are you not dead bad.
I posted optimistically on Facebook about my results, acknowledging the positives and the negatives of the outcome. Then I reviewed the results with my mother, pointing to my HDL, my LDL, my triglycerides. And cried some more.
“Why are you crying?” my mother asked, bewildered.
“Because I have busted my ass to prevent this from happening,” I sobbed, “and no matter how hard I try, I can’t prevent it. I’m fighting an uphill battle that I can’t win.”
“But you have tried,” my mother said. “And it’s working.” And she’s right. It’s working. Just barely enough.
Trying is exhausting and alienating, especially at my age. I enviously stare at other 20-somethings who consume fried chicken, hot dogs, and french fries without a care. I envy that they don’t live a life that involves constantly checking the nutritional labels on food boxes. I apologetically look at my feet when I’m at a party and someone politely offers me a cigarette or hard liquor and I refuse, and even if they’re nice about it, I know they think I’m a prude. Although I know it isn’t, I feel like my situation is unique, and I might as well as be a Martian.
But giving up completely would mean losing, and allowing the illness to completely take over my body. And I don’t want to give up the control over my body that I’ve fought so hard to have. So I keep my head up, and keep moving forward.