Candy canes put together in the snow to make a heart shape
February is American Heart Month

Credit: A. Jarrett on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–It all started about four years ago when I was having dinner with friends one evening and began to feel faint. I didn’t know what was happening to me, but I was sweating profusely and could feel minor pressure on my chest.

At first I didn’t think much of it. After all, I was only 40 years old so I thought it couldn’t be anything more than a hot flash. I was wrong. The next morning I saw my doctor who performed an EKG test and told me I had suffered a heart attack.

This February, in honor of American Heart Month, I want women and moms to understand that heart disease has many faces. Cardiovascular disease can be complex and may not always be a matter of age or poor lifestyle choices.

How could it be that I had a heart attack at 40? I thought I was healthy and had been active. But I knew that what I had been experiencing wasn’t normal, so I was sent to a cardiologist. After several what I was sure were “false positives” and in utter frustration, I asked for a cardiac catherization test to prove once and for all that I didn’t have heart disease. During the test I went into cardiac arrest. Although doctors found that four of my arteries were 90 percent blocked, I miraculously survived. I had five stents inserted into my heart. But I still didn’t know what had caused my heart attack.

A Common Disease

I eventually met with Dr. Helen Hobbs, an esteemed geneticist who diagnosed me with a condition called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), a genetic lipid disorder that stops the liver from being able to extract a type of cholesterol, LDL, from the body, causing levels to build up. As cholesterol builds up, people with FH can develop early heart disease and be at high risk of having a heart attack or stroke early in their adulthood.

I would later learn that FH is common—it affects 1 out of every 500 people, but less than 20 percent are ever diagnosed prior to a life threatening cardiac event. When I received my diagnosis I realized I had been living with this my whole life and just didn’t know it. Suddenly everything began to add up. I thought about my father who had suffered from heart attacks during my childhood and I had actually been diagnosed with high cholesterol when I was 19 but no action was taken or required of me at the time.

After I was diagnosed with FH, my thoughts immediately turned to my two children. Not only was I worried they wouldn’t have a mother around, having seen me driven off in an ambulance once already with my second cardiac event, but what if they had FH too? My worst fear came true. Genetic screening, done on my children when I was diagnosed, revealed that my 11-year-old son Christian also has FH. It was then that I learned that a simple cholesterol screening from his pediatrician would have also provided a chance to diagnose and treat him.

Facing It Together

It was a frightening thing to learn, but it turned out that my heart attacks provided the awareness to help save my son’s life. Now that we know the risks of FH, we are taking aggressive steps to lower our cholesterol and stabilize the existing plaque build-up in both of us. It is also helpful that we are facing this challenge together with the support of our whole family.

Unfortunately the first symptom of FH is often a heart attack at a young age. That is why, in 2011, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute issued guidelines urging cholesterol screening for all children between ages 9 and 11.

I encourage women who have experienced an early heart attack or have a family history of heart attack to get their children screened for high cholesterol. In my case, there were no symptoms and I had no idea I was at risk. My son was also healthy. But now we can take steps to protect our health every day. I lived and as such I promise to keep doing what I can to educate families on the importance of early diagnosis for FH. No other families should have to wait for a heart attack to take action against FH.

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