Some of you may be unaware, but there are various forms of heart disease, covering all abnormalities of the heart, including the heart muscle itself, valves and even arteries. Like most diseases, these abnormalities can be present in utero, caused by a viral or bacterial illness, or due to lack of self-care from poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle.
This leads to the next topic; what type of heart disease do I have? Well, my friends, I have something called Congenital Heart Disease. This means that from the time my heart began to form, it had a different idea of what instructions to follow. My heart decided to rebel slightly and arrange itself in a way that was not necessarily the most functional. If you don’t know me so well, all you really need to know is that I have always marched to the beat of my own drum. Why wouldn’t my heart follow that same approach, right? I have always felt there are multiple ways to do something, even if it isn’t always the recommended method. But you know what? I’m thankful for my heart abnormalities, otherwise I would not be here today, writing this blog and hoping to inspire all of you Heart Disease warriors to get outdoors and have some fun! Congenital heart disease cannot be reversed, but I learned that through fitness and clean eating, my heart had become stronger than my medical team thought possible. It was once thought and documented that congenital heart disease patients would not be strong enough to become athletes. As a former classically trained ballerina and current rock climber, I assure you that this argument is no longer valid. Every day is a mental and physical game to push myself past these boundaries so I can live an active and healthy life without limits.
What is exactly wrong with my heart? Well, look at the list below and I will explain each line item:
- Pulmonary Valve Regurgitation
- Enlarged Right Ventricle
- Enlarged Right Atrium
- Right Bundle Branch Block
- Ventricular Tachycardia
Pulmonary Valve Regurgitation is a structural abnormality in my heart. It more finite terms, it means that my Pulmonic Valve is “sticky” or “leaky”. This leaflet, which is the valve, is supposed to open and close as it allows oxygen-poor blood from the body to enter the lungs to be filled with all the oxygen that we love so much. When this valve becomes sticky and leaks, it means that oxygen-rich blood flows backwards into the right side of my heart, causing an enlargement. The heart is very specific in the way it works, so when excess blood decides to flow backwards, pressures become higher than normal due to a higher volume of blood, and the body learns to adapt. In my case, this is where my enlarged Right Ventricle and Right Atrium come into play. With every heartbeat, a little bit of blood goes the wrong way and the right side of my heart had to enlarge to allow for that displacement. Over time, this may cause right heart failure, which would call for a heart transplant or valve replacement. That day is not today, so it’s not anything worth worrying about. You know what I am worried about? Whether that 5.12 sport-climbing route at the Nike gym is going to keep spitting me off the wall. Through a heart healthy diet and exercise, I have been able to keep the status of my heart as “moderate” and without too many serious consequences. When you stay healthy and active, your heart compensates, becomes stronger and allows some of those weaker areas to take a much-needed rest. This is one reason why working out daily has become a part of my lifestyle. To have a long, healthy and active life, I will need to always be vigilant.
A Right Bundle Branch Block is an issue with circuitry in the heart. Everyone has a right and left bundle branch in their heart’s wiring. When electrical impulses are sent to the heart for contraction (your heartbeat), the left and right bundle branches are signaled at the same time and are supposed to trigger. For me, when that initial signal is sent to my heart, the left bundle branch triggers an electrical impulse, and activates the left ventricle before the right bundle branch responds and activates the right ventricle. This delayed response, or in my case, complete block causes my heart to not pump blood as efficiently as it should to the rest of my body. There is no treatment for this specific issue, and is typically an underlying symptom of a more serious issue. In my case, it led cardiologists to the discovery of my right-sided heart abnormalities. ECG characteristics of a typical Right Bundle Branch Block show wide QRS complexes with a terminal R wave in lead V1 and slurred S wave in lead V6. (Photo below)
A right bundle branch block (RBBB) in simple terms is a heart block in the electrical conduction system.
Now onto the final heart abnormality; this is also an electrical issue and called Ventricular Tachycardia and most times represents as Inappropriate Sinus Node Tachycardia. I know what you are all thinking, and yes, this is EXACTLY why I majored in Molecular Biology. How else was I going to be able to fully understand my heart, how it worked and what made it different? Wait a second, that’s why we have Google, right!?! Unlike my other heart abnormalities, this is in no way related to my right-sided heart irregularities. This one kind of came out of nowhere and caused my initial cardioversion back in 2011. When I do things, I don’t just do it halfway, okay? In utero, I really made sure that I had all my bases covered with Congenital Heart Disease. Tachycardia simply means a fast heart-rate. Inappropriate Sinus Node Tachycardia is a fast rhythm, in my case, 180 bpm, that occurs in the sinus node and is non-life threatening. My heart just misfires at times and decides to beat faster than it really should. Unfortunately, I also have Ventricular Tachycardia that can slide in there, and because the feelings are similar, I never really know which rhythm it is. Ventricular Tachycardia is dangerous and requires medical intervention, and in a lot of cases, a pace maker. At this point in my life, I have been blessed with a Calcium Channel blocker medication that prevents these arrhythmias from happening. If at any point in time that stops working, then other options will be discussed. But again, that day is not today and I’m just thankful for every heart beat that God is choosing to give me.
So, there it is in a nutshell; my heart. I hope you all enjoyed what I had to write and understand that laughter is so important. I fully acknowledge the seriousness of heart disease, but more than that, I acknowledge the importance of finding joy. I believe my weakness is my biggest strength and heart disease won’t stop me from laughing every day. Every day, I come face to face with challenges and there is not one day that I forget about my disease. I have reminders every day, whether it’s a palpitation, shortness of breath or the feeling of just being exhausted. If I focused every day on what I couldn’t do, I would never know what it felt like to just be happy. If I spent each day or even one moment feeling sorry for myself, I would never be where I am today. It’s completely normal and suggested to mourn what could have been. I have been there. I have had days when I looked individuals in the eye and said, “What’s it like to have a normal heart?” Or even, “If I was lucky enough to have a healthy heart like yours, I wouldn’t be wasting it sitting around the house all day”. Every heartbeat I get is a gift and I’m going to use it to make a difference in this world and spread hope for the future. Hope that one day, Congenital Heart Disease will be a thing of the past so that no one should live a life with limits. I believe in a life without limits, and will spend every day of my life pushing mine to see what I’m capable of. When asked about life, I always said, “Life is good”. Then one day, I met an amazing man who said, “Life is great! Leave good at the door”. So today, I want you all to focus on making each day a great day, and leaving the rest at the door.
“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” – Thomas A. Edison