About six years ago, as Jessica Aller was celebrating the one-year anniversary of breaking up with an ex-boyfriend, the then-24 year old Tyngsboro resident was hit with an intense wave of exhaustion.
As her friends chatted and watched television and ate and drank, Aller curled up on the couch and went to sleep.
Her behavior didn’t strike anyone as odd.
For the past two months, it seemed as though Aller was always tired. It was just the way her body was programmed, she told herself. This must be what happens when you hit your mid-20s. Or maybe she had a stubborn cold.
A few hours later, Aller was back home at her parents’ house, attempting to do laundry. As she hauled a basket of clothes up the stairs, she suddenly collapsed in a heap.
“I’m dying,” she cried out to her parents.
“You’re being dramatic,” her father replied. “You’re not dying.”
Aller was not being dramatic.
When her condition did not improve the next day, Aller saw a doctor. After a few tests, he delivered words that are still imprinted on her brain.
“Not to alarm you,” he said, “but you have the lowest heart rate we’ve ever seen, and we’re going to rush you to the emergency room.”
By that point, Aller’s heart had stopped about a dozen times. Her eyes were rolling in the back of her head. She would soon be lying on an operating table, surrounded by her loving parents, waiting to have a pacemaker implanted in her chest.
“When you’re 24 you think you’re invincible,” said Aller during a recent interview at Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union’s Tyngsboro branch, where she works. “It hit me really hard.”
Heart problems are often underdiagnosed among women, especially young ones, according to Cece Lynch, Lowell General Hospital’s vice president of patient services and chief nurse executive.
“There is a general societal stereotype that women’s symptoms are sometimes a little bit vaguer,” said Lynch. “Women don’t experience the crushing chest pain like a man might. Sometimes they have vague symptoms like they’ve been tired.”
This leads patients to mistakenly think they have a virus or that they simply exercised too strenuously, she said.
This was not Aller’s first experience with heart surgery, and it would not be her last. When she was three, she had surgery to repair structural problems with her heart. Her younger brother, Carl, was born with the same defects and had the same surgery.
Something must have gone wrong during Jessica’s operation. Perhaps the surgeon “nicked something,” she has been told, because she was completely cleared at 12 and told there would be no complications later in life.
After her pacemaker surgery, Aller said she lived her life on auto-pilot. She didn’t date, avoided new experiences and often felt like there was no one her age who could relate to what she had gone through.
“I would always get really nervous that people were going to find it odd. How do you tell people that you’re 24 and you have a pacemaker?” she said. “How does that fit into conversation on a first date?”
Then, at the age of 28, doctors discovered one side of Aller’s heart was getting larger, while the other side was getting weaker – a condition referred to as “pacemaker syndrome.” She had a second pacemaker installed.
After the second surgery, Aller decided she needed to start living.
“It was like a wake-up call,” she said. “Life isn’t forever. Life needs to move on. Things need to happen.”
She met her boyfriend two months later. She also reached out to the American Heart Association to see if she could get involved with a cause that had been a part of her life since birth.
“I thought I would hand out water at a walk or something,” she said.
She attended a “casting call,” an event the American Heart Association holds to connect heart and stroke survivors with each other and to recruit patients to be volunteers and spokespeople for the organization. Instead of handing her a water bottle, the organization put Aller in front of a camera and has used her story to get the message out that heart disease affects women of all ages.
The organization has also connected Aller with people like her.
Throughout most of her life, Aller could relate to her brother. He had the same surgery, the same scars. But after her pacemaker surgery, Aller felt alone.
“I met one girl at an event who had a pacemaker, and that was like the coolest thing in the world for me, because I could relate to her and she could relate to me,” Aller said.
Aller is encouraging heart and stroke patients to attend a casting call that The American Heart Association is holding Wednesday, Nov. 18, at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center, 50 Warren St., Lowell. The event, which is sponsored by Lowell General Hospital, runs from 4-7:30 p.m. and is open to the public.
Event organizer Cheryll Andrews said she is seeking women of all ages whose lives have been touched by heart disease or stroke.
“Survivors have the most passion because they understand exactly what the outcome is from their event and what the technology and research has done to benefit them,” said Andrews. “They have a very specific passion that they can translate much easier than we can as staff.”
Lynch, who is speaking tomorrow night, described having a network of people as critical to the healing process.
“There is sometimes that feeling that happened to me, I’m sick, I’m not whole anymore. I’m not complete,” she said. “I think that’s where the emotional support of a network is so important.”
Aller said sharing her story with others has been cathartic.
“This isn’t a situation where I woke up and I’ve done X, Y and Z bad things in my life so I should get this,” said Aller. “This is something I just happened to be born with, and now I have to deal with it. It’s good for you to talk about your story, and it can only benefit other people who are going through it.”