I had a heart attack on Mother’s Day 2014. I was 44 years old and home with my family. Like many others who’ve had a heart attack, I never thought it would happen to me.
At the time, I was volunteering with the American Heart Association (AHA), raising money and awareness for congenital heart defects and heart disease in honor of my son and memory of my father. I had been volunteering there for seven years.
Then, in a cruel twist of fate, I suffered a massive heart attack. The shortness of breath I experienced the night before and the uncomfortable heartburn I felt that morning prompted me to call the doctor. I was told it could be esophageal, but not to rule out a heart attack. I was then further instructed to take an antacid and go to the ER if it got any worse.
I just kept thinking, “There’s no way it can be a heart attack.”
But I never made it to the ER. My heart stopped, and I was dead on my bathroom floor. After calling 911, my husband performed CPR on me until the paramedics arrived. It was determined that I had a 70 percent blockage in my left anterior descending artery, also known as the widow maker.
Once I was in the hospital, and 30 hours after my first heart attack, I went into cardiac arrest three times. They shocked me 13 times to stabilize me. I underwent emergency surgery to place a stent in my heart to open the blockage. I survived.
It was two days before I was alert again. I still had no memory of what happened or the severity of it, but I was alive. Everyone around me felt the trauma, but I had no emotional connection to the events. I could, however, feel the physical pain of my fractured ribs (from the CPR), and I was very weak.
The insurance plan I was on covered 36 sessions of cardiac rehabilitation, which I willingly took advantage of. The terror from collapsing in my home without even feeling myself lose consciousness was still with me. I was too scared to start doing any physical activity on my own, and felt much safer with the supervision and tools offered in the program.
Throughout the recovery process, I made my health my priority. Nowadays, though, it’s been hard to put myself first with so many other things to manage. My life has always been about taking care of others, and I continue to do that.
Being a heart attack survivor can be challenging. Suddenly, you’re given this diagnosis and your life completely shifts. While you’re in recovery, you might move slower as you build your strength back up, but there aren’t any visible signs of illness. You don’t look any different, which can make it hard for your friends and family to realize you’re unwell and may need their support.
Some people dive right into the recovery process, excited to start a heart-healthy diet and exercise program. Others, however, may take huge steps and make great choices at first, but then slowly fall back into unhealthy habits.
Whichever category you fall under, what matters most is you’re alive. You’re a survivor. Try not to let yourself be discouraged by any setbacks you may encounter. Whether it’s joining a gym next week, going back on your heart-healthy diet tomorrow, or simply taking a deep breath to relieve your stress, there’s always an opportunity to start fresh.
Always remember that you’re not alone. There are some wonderful resources available to connect you with others who are also on this journey. We’re all happy to offer guidance and support — I know I am.
I encourage you to make the most of your circumstances and live your best life! You’re here for a reason.
With heartfelt sincerity,
Leigh Pechillo is a 49-year-old stay-at-home mom, wife, blogger, advocate, and member of the Central Connecticut Board of Directors for the American Heart Association. In addition to being a heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest survivor, Leigh is the mother to and wife of congenital heart defect survivors. She is grateful for every day and works to support, inspire, and educate other survivors by being an advocate for heart health.