By Aimee Rodriguez Zepeda, told to Danny Bonvissuto
I didn’t have the typical feeling that people describe as difficulty breathing. Instead, I was tired. I was 39 with two children in elementary school and two in high school. Feeling exhausted seemed pretty typical for women like me.
I went to see my GP. I thought I was just going to tell her I was tired and ask her if she could suggest a good vitamin B12.
Instead, she listened to my heart and said, “I don’t like what I hear.” She referred me to a cardiologist and told me I had to go in a day or two.
I thought, “I’m fine. It’s nothing. Something small. They’re just going to tell me I’m getting old and I need to lose weight. All the usual stuff.”
A few days later, I had an echocardiogram. Then the cardiologist came in, sat down, and in the most direct way said, “You have heart failure. Your heart is working at 20%.
I was like, “Wait. What?”
He repeated himself, then handed me a box of tissues.
I have dilated cardiomyopathy, congestive heart failure and systolic heart failure. It means my heart is enlarged and not pumping well enough.
For a while I sat there and didn’t know what to say. Then I said, “How can we solve this problem? What are we doing?”
He said: “Heart failure is not something you fix, it’s something you manage. We’re going to attack this aggressively right now to improve your function, but it’s a lifetime commitment.
Before my diagnosis, I was doing what I wanted to do. I ate whatever I wanted and didn’t really think about what I ate, even though all the women in my family, including my elderly mother, suffered from heart failure. My doctor thinks my problem is a mix of genetics and side effects from the chemotherapy I received for uterine cancer 7 years ago.
Big changes quickly
Immediately, I changed my way of eating. I love my adobo seasoning, but I had to stay away from salt. I quickly realized that I was craving everything that I could no longer eat. I’ve never dreamed of a Big Mac so much in my life, although I’ve never been a big fan of McDonald’s. I had to ask myself, is it worth it?
Another thing I had to learn to deal with quickly was stress. Stress is our enemy. It’s something I’m still working on, to be honest.
Every day is different. Some days I wake up and feel like I can conquer the world. Other days, not so much. I’m a government contractor, pursuing my doctorate in public policy and administration, and caring for my mother, who lives with me. I had to learn to listen to my body. If your body tells you that you are tired, you are tired. Rest.
Showers are a challenge. The heat of the shower and the energy it takes to wash my hair are tiring me. I have to sit down and relax afterwards.
I also have to take my time to clean the house. Something that would have taken me a few hours back in the day takes me all day now.
I still do a lot of the same things I did before I was diagnosed with heart failure; it just takes me longer to do them. Heart failure has given me a different perspective on life: it’s not always important to do everything in one day. Before my diagnosis, it would have driven me crazy.
The good part? It slowed me down. The bad part? It slowed me down.
I take several types of medication: heart medication, diuretics, vitamins, and acid reflux medication. Years ago, after my chemo treatments, I started having bouts of petit mal, or staring at times. So now I also take anticonvulsants.
My doctors are always tweaking and modifying my medications to suit my body’s needs.
Diet and exercise
In the morning I will take eggs and fruit. In the afternoon, maybe a grilled chicken sandwich with a baked potato. For dinner I can have chicken or seafood with green beans, maybe some rice and a side salad.
To exercise, I walk around or use the Stairmaster in my bedroom. I aim for about 30 minutes, three times a week. It’s harder in the summer because of the heat, but I can do more in the winter.
I have a very good support system. My children have their moments, like all children, but they are very caring. If they realize I’m not feeling well and need something, they’ll help me down the stairs or sit on the couch next to me. They do little things, but it shows me that they understand if I’m not feeling well that day.
I always tell people not to look for the typical signs. You never know how your body will react. My kidneys can’t remove fluid from my body efficiently and my heart has trouble pumping everything to the right places. I hold fluid in my stomach, face, and arms, and if it gets to my legs and feet, I know I’m extremely flooded. The liquid puts pressure on your heart and can send you into cardiac arrest.
If you don’t feel well, have it checked out. Even if your doctor says it’s probably nothing, get him checked out. It is easier to fix a problem before it is a problem than to fix a problem when it is a problem.