Eight weeks after Christy Pfeifer-Gamez gave birth to her fourth child, Lillian, on the Fourth of July, she started feeling ill. One morning she couldn’t even get out of bed. The doctors thought it might be pneumonia.
They never expected it to have anything to do with her heart. After all, she was too young for that, they said. Fortunately, Pfeifer-Gamez’s family persuaded her to transfer her care to Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas.
“My husband, family, everyone just wanted me at Baylor,” the 28-year-old says. Their insistence may have saved her life. The doctors at Baylor discovered she had postpartum cardiomyopathy, meaning her heart had become weak and couldn’t pump blood efficiently. “I was put in a medically induced coma for three weeks,” she recalls.
“After coming out of the coma, I had to learn how to do everything again. It took a lot of help from my physical therapists, my family and my husband for me to recover.” Today, more than a year later, Pfeifer-Gamez is leading a heart healthy lifestyle. She stays active by playing in a coed soccer league with her husband, Freddy, and has changed her diet.
“I’m on a low-sodium diet,” she says. “I don’t buy chips or snacks for the house. We eat more fruit and more salads.” Pfeifer-Gamez also sees her doctor regularly and will have to take medication for the rest of her life.
She knows that heart trouble doesn’t discriminate based on age. Do you? It’s time to dispel this heart myth, and a few others, for good.
Hear Christy’s story below in her own words.
MYTH: Heart disease can’t affect me. I’m too young!
FACT: Think again. As Pfeifer-Gamez’s experience shows, cardiovascular disease takes many forms, including heart failure, and can affect anyone.
“Patients can be teenagers and younger, or in their 80s,” says Steve Simpson, M.D., a cardiologist on the medical staff at Baylor All Saints Medical Center at Fort Worth. This is why it’s important to know your family history and get your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked early and often. “Plaque buildup can start as early as the teen years,” says Neeraj Arora, M.D., a cardiologist on the medical staff at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Grapevine.
MYTH: Heart disease is a man’s disease.
FACT: “There could not be a bigger myth than this,” Dr. Arora says. “Heart disease is the leading cause of death among American women.”
In fact, it kills more women ages 65 and older than all cancers combined—including breast cancer. And yet most women tend to ignore or explain away the subtle symptoms that might signal heart trouble, including shortness of breath (with or without chest pain), nausea, cold sweats and pain in your chest (or arms, jaw, neck, back or stomach).
If you experience any of these warning signs, speak up and seek help immediately.
MYTH: No one in my family has had a heart attack, so I’m off the hook.
FACT: First, make sure that’s true. Many people aren’t aware they have a family history of heart disease until a crisis strikes. Ask your parents and siblings if they have high blood pressure or cholesterol levels—both important risk factors to know about. Second, if your own numbers are high, you smoke or you aren’t physically active, then you’re at risk, no matter what your family history is. On the other hand, even if you eat right and exercise, you can still be susceptible. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as zero risk when it comes to heart disease, which makes managing the factors within your control (weight, activity level, diet) so important.
MYTH: I would be able to tell if I had high blood pressure.
FACT: “There’s a reason why hypertension is called the silent killer,” Dr. Arora says. “You may not have any symptoms from it.” The same is true for high cholesterol levels. Normal blood pressure is 120/80 or lower; your total cholesterol should be less than 200. Do you know what your numbers are? “Today there’s not much of an excuse not to know,” Dr. Simpson says.
This blog post originally appeared as an article in the January 2013 issue of BaylorHealth magazine.