By Kim Egipciaco, Guest Blogger
Remember back in gym class when they would have you run the mile twice a year for the Fitness Test? Well I remember it as an easy task, one that I never thought much about or labored through. I was an athletic, tiny, tomboy who wasn’t afraid of anything (except maybe Gremlins; that movie gets me every time). The mile was always the easy part for me, that is, until one day… I can remember rounding the second lap and feeling like someone was squeezing my lungs. It was hard to get air. “I can’t breathe,” I gasped. I fell to one knee clutching my chest.
Ten minutes later, the school nurse was on the phone with my mother. I vaguely remember hearing the nurse explain, “Exercise-induced asthma. No more running like that for her until she gets an inhaler.” This was the first warning sign we all ignored. I was nine.
Fast forward to those high school days. The first taste of freedom. Wasn’t it glorious? In my opinion, the best part of high school was the free period at the end of the day. That meant lunch dates with my friends. One day as we were driving to the local diner, I noticed that my pinky finger had gone numb. Then my ring finger. Then my arm. When I went to explain to my friends that something was wrong, my words were garbled. I wasn’t making any sense. The more I heard myself, the more terrified I became. My friends were smart enough to rush me back to the high school for help; my mother worked there. After I calmed down and the nightmare ended, I was left with a vicious aura migraine. I had suffered from them before, but none were so awful that they caused me to lose feeling in my extremities or lose ability to speak. I was sent to a neurologist who simply explained that I would be fine. Another prescription. Another warning sign that went unnoticed. I was 15.
A few months later, I was working in the basement of my house on an art project. I was drawing my neighbor’s house. North Haven, Connecticut was a beautiful town this time of year with the buds of new life blanketing Sleeping Giant Mountain, and I always felt so peaceful when I was drawing. The attack came out of nowhere. My mind was screaming, I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe! I bolted up the stairs and tried to explain to my parents what was happening to me.
This time there would be no diagnosis for eight months. Doctor after doctor, time continued on leaving me behind in a world of growing anxiety and depression. “Thyroid?” No. “Tumor?” No. “Cancer?” No. What was the diagnosis you ask? Anxiety Disorder. This chemical imbalance should have triggered the question of: Why are the chemicals in what seems to be a perfectly healthy teenager imbalanced? What caused this? What should we be looking for? But no. Another doctor, a psychiatrist, and still no one thought much of it. Not me. Not my mother. Not the various doctors I had met along this journey. We were all too ignorant to know the warning signs. Ignorance is bliss until it’s killing you. I was 16.
“Anyone ever tell you that you have a heart murmur?” the pediatrician asked me. How I made it this far without ever hearing those words surprised me. “Sounds benign. Nothing to worry about,” she continued. Warning sign number four! Shut down. I still didn’t know any better. To this day I wonder, How can something SOUND benign? The answer eludes me to this day. I was 18.
It’s almost comical when you finally stop seeing your pediatrician and start seeing an “adult doctor.” It’s like a rite of passage or something. I didn’t need my mother to come with me anymore and I was in charge of my own health. It felt good. I was a junior in college which meant that I was ready to take on the world!
As my new general physician reviewed my records, she asked me what internship I was thinking of applying for Senior year. After a few minutes of chatting, she conducted her examination. It alarmed me when she suddenly shushed me, listening intently to my heart. “Have you ever had an EKG or a heart ultrasound?” I can remember thinking, Say what? Is that a test adults have? “Nope,” I responded casually without a care in the world. She smiled sweetly and responded, “Well, you are now then. I am sending you for both. No big deal. Just think I hear a little something with your heartbeat and to be sure, we want to rule out everything.” I was 20.
I never knew when I walked out of her office that she was saving my life. I never knew that I was a ticking time bomb; my heart had been working over time because of a hole that shot straight through the wall in between the two chambers of my heart. Turns out, I was born with it 21 years prior as are many children with congenial heart disorders. I remember thinking, How did no one notice? How did no one see the warning signs? At the end of the day, that someone should have been me.
Alas, we didn’t know what the warning signs were back then, and if we did, certainly no one was talking about it. Every moment of my life had been defined by another medical condition, each one a signal from my body that something was wrong. Something was screaming for my attention and I went on living life ignoring it. That’s when I made the decision that I would no longer be a bystander to heart attack and stroke. I would no longer allow the past to dictate my future. I would live for not just myself, but for others as well.
After my diagnosis, the defect was plugged with an atrial septal occluder made of titanium and mesh six months after it was discovered. The year was 2004. The surgery was only two weeks after my 21st birthday. No tequila for me, but at least I now knew there would be plenty of time for that.
So where am I now? I am now an incredibly healthy (if I do say so myself) 33 year old adult. I don’t have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or even so much as a slightly rapid heartbeat. Although heart disease and stroke run heavily in my family, it is through the awareness of what I now call “my previous life” that I am aware of the importance of a healthy diet, lots of exercise, and the power of love, family, and happiness.
Join Kim and other survivors at the American Heart Association Northern NJ Go Red For Women Luncheon on Thursday, February 23 in West Orange, NJ. For tickets and more information, visit nnjgored.heart.org.