By Janice B. Recca, Guest Blogger
My diagnosis came quite by accident. I had agreed to take advantage of a promotional body scan and was shocked when the report came back showing a large thoracic aneurysm in the ascending aorta near my heart. I was completely stunned and initially went into denial. “Why me?” resounded again and again. I was relatively young and in good health. I was still in a daze, but knew I had to seek advice.
Open heart surgery was not advised until such a time that the risk of undergoing this procedure was less than the risk of walking around with a weakening aorta. With no set time frame for when surgical intervention would be needed, the advice was to live “normally.” I was living with a ticking time bomb in my chest, ready to go off with little advance warning. Intense anxieties bubbled up, threatening to overwhelm me. I knew I was in for the fight of my life.
I was given an array of advice from cardiologists, including the particular warning sign for aortic dissection. I would be on high alert for a sharp pain between my shoulder blades which would indicate the aneurysm’s dissection and I would need immediate surgery.
It was all surreal. I must be having a bad dream. And then- the instinct for survival, and my fervor for life, planted a seed of resolve that would grow prodigious fortitude. I fully accepted my circumstances, which marked the beginning of life-enhancing changes.
I became proactive in educating myself regarding aneurysms and open heart surgery. I sought support from some wonderful people I met online, who had experienced what I was facing. I am a wife and mother of three, but I could no longer do for everyone, all of the time. I needed to let go and to learn to ask for help. I practiced meditation and mindful yoga, which proved instrumental in helping me with clarity of mind, focus and tenacity. I substituted brisk walking as a low-risk alternative to the body pump classes I had terminated. Exercise was essential to keep the heart muscle strong.
A year passed. Then, a CT scan revealed the aneurysm had grown to the point requiring open heart surgery. Within 6 weeks the surgery was performed successfully and I was discharged just four days later. It was finally over.
But on the way home from the hospital, a realization hit me hard. Now what? The doctors had concentrated on my surgery, but there was no guidance as to the recovery process. As feelings of apprehension and vulnerability set in, I realized my recovery would be up to me.
Needless to say, the process had its own challenges. I actually felt worse after the surgery than I had in the weeks and months prior. But with determination, I harnessed the strength and new life skills I acquired throughout this entire sojourn. I devised and implemented a plan for my complete recovery. Three months after surgery, I was at the gym training for a benefit spinning competition!
Today, I am a survivor ambassador for the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women movement and a WomenHeart Champion. I share my story with anyone who will listen so I can educate and raise awareness about the risks of heart disease and the importance of living a heart-healthy lifestyle. My mission is to help others embrace their challenges, overcome fears, and transform obstacles into opportunities for personal growth, meaning and happiness.
As the holidays swing into high gear, I’m reminded of so many reasons why I am grateful to call myself a survivor. I’m a wife, a mother, a grandmother and a life coach. My family is why. And life. Life is why.
For more information on finding support after a heart or stroke event, visit the online Support Network.
Our mission is to be a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives. For nearly 100 years, we’ve been fighting heart disease and stroke, striving to save and improve lives. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer worldwide, and stroke ranks second globally. Even when those conditions don’t result in death, they cause disability and diminish quality of life. We want to see a world free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke.