Saturday, March 14, 2009

Living With Heart Disease

This is national "Go Red for Women" month which is a campaign to increase awareness of heart disease in women. The media tends to focus on the fact that heart attacks are the leading cause of death for women. I want to raise awareness of what it is like to LIVE with heart disease.

I have congestive heart failure. Although I have always been heavy I was athletic and considered by my doctors to be in good health. That changed two and a half years ago when I ended up in the Emergency Room.

I noticed that I was tiring easily over three years ago. I attributed this to the stress of working two jobs and two traumatic deaths in my family. I decided to "tough it out" thinking the fatigue would pass.

It did not pass, the fatigue grew worse. I could not walk across the room without sitting down to rest. Some days I could not get out of bed. I would wake up and start to get ready for work, then I would find myself waking up again several hours later with my clothes on the bed beside me.

I went to the doctor when I started having migraines. He discovered my blood pressure was high and started treating me for that condition. He wanted to run more tests but I did not have insurance so I could not afford them - like so many of the working poor.

My hours at work decreased because I was not strong enough to go in. I started gaining ten to twenty pounds a month - and keeping it on. My shoe size increased from a size eight to a men's size twelve.

I developed a cough that would not go away. There were two episodes of coughing that were so severe that I actually passed out for a few seconds. This progressed to shortness of breath which I thought was wheezing due to allergies - even though I had never experienced wheezing in my entire life.

Then I ended up in the Emergency Room. A doctor told me that he wanted me to stay in the hospital. When I protested he told me that if I left I would be dead in a matter of hours. I stayed.

After a whole battery of tests I was told that I had congestive heart failure due to sleep apnea. There are no blockages in my arteries. The sleep apnea caused my heart to pump so hard that it enlarged causing fluid to back up into my body.

Now I collect disability. I go in the hospital three or four times a year. I take a handfull of pills in the morning and another at night. I am on oxygen around the clock. I use a C-pap machine while sleeping in a recliner because if I lie down flat I smother. I have memory problems due to the medications and lack of oxygen.

I force myself to get out of bed. I have long hair because it is too hard to use a blow dryer or curling iron. I shower sitting in a chair. I shop in smaller stores because it is too hard to walk through a large store. I use shopping carts for support - not to carry groceries.

When I go out in public strangers avert their eyes because I look like walking death. Friends and cowokers bend over backwards to help me. At work they give me every concession necessary to keep me working. My family is in denial. Either they cannot comprehend that I am as weak as I am or they are angry about my situation.

I do not eat salt or any food that tastes good for that matter. A visit to a restaurant will put nine pounds on me in one night. It takes days, sometimes weeks, to lose it. Although I am not tired twenty -four hours a day anymore, I have about a half hour activity window before I need to rest.

Even though my heart has returned to normal size, I will be on medicine for the rest of my life. The average congestive heart failure patient lives five years. I am two and a half years into my diagnosis. I am forty-six years old.

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