Heather Link, 26, was a champion swimmer at age 13. After returning from a routine dental cleaning, she developed endocarditis, an inflammation of the inside lining of the heart chambers and valves. She underwent five heart surgeries and received a temporary heart pump. Today, she is healthy and dedicated to living a long and active life.
What was your reaction when you learned that you had heart disease?
When I first found out that I was born with a heart ailment, I was both concerned and curious as to how this would affect my life in terms of sports. I first became aware that something was wrong with my heart when I was about 9 years old. But at the time, my doctors and cardiologists assured me that I wouldn’t have to do anything out of the norm until I decided to one day have children or if it turned out I would need to have major surgery.
That was true until April of 1997, three years later, when I found out I had developed a bacterial infection (called endocarditis) that I got from a dental cleaning. My life took a major turn and thus began a year of heart complications and multiple surgeries. At 12, most kids are worried about how much time they can spend playing with their friends or whether their clothes match, not if they are going to survive each day. All I wanted was to return to middle school and be normal again.
What advice would you give to young women about their heart health?
I would advise young women to be aware of their bodies, ask lots of questions and really understand their family history. You are your best advocate and no one else knows your body like you do. It’s also important to be proactive and not let “small symptoms” fall by the wayside. Many women are not aware that heart attacks are a significant killer in America.
What kind of misconceptions do people hold about athletes, like yourself, and heart disease?
Many people assume that healthy and athletic people can escape heart disease. Although maintaining a healthy lifestyle benefits your health, genetics and unintentional illnesses can also contribute towards health complications. As an athlete with heart disease, many of my coaches and teammates were unaware of my heart condition just by looking at my physical appearance. Once I understood my limitations, I knew how much I could push myself, and when I had to ease up. This is why it is important to be aware of your body and what it’s telling you.
How has your diagnosis affected your outlook on your overall health and your future?
After my diagnosis, I was determined to return to my normal teenage life. I wanted to do everything possible to keep myself healthy so that I could live a long life. Each day I try to make healthy choices so that my heart continues to get “rave” reviews at my yearly stress test run. My diagnosis has helped me become an inquisitive and educated young woman, who demands to be informed on all my health issues. I know many women who avoid checkups and doctor visits because they don’t want to hear “bad news.” However, staying up to date with your health concerns will only prolong your life and future.
A lot of women don’t realize they’re at risk for cardiovascular disease. What advice would you give to these women about their heart health?
You need to be proactive about your health in case you ever need to make a tough decision about your heart. Getting regular checkups, maintaining a healthy diet and exercise plan and acknowledging health risks are a few ways to stay educated. You are born with only one heart and you need it to live, so treat it like the fragile gift it is.