Heart Disease Finally Slowed Brendaa Down
Then, three months after her 40th birthday, her go-go-go lifestyle came to a grinding halt, when she passed out on her kitchen floor. In the emergency room, Hayes was hooked up to a monitor that measured her heart rate at 32 beats per minute. Recalling that day three years ago, Hayes says, "The nurse said, 'something's wrong with the machine,' and she got another." But after switching equipment, it was clear that it was Hayes' heart -- not the monitor -- that was malfunctioning. Within an hour, her pulse had jumped from 32 to 250 beats per minute. "That's when they knew I had a heart rhythm problem," says Hayes.
SEARCHING FOR CLUES
With no family history of heart disease, and because she was so young, the doctors looked for an underlying cause for the heart rhythm irregularities. "They thought maybe it was an infection." But after several weeks and a battery of tests, Hayes says, it was clear that the root of the problem was her heart's natural pacemaker, the sinoatrial node. Her diagnosis was sick sinus syndrome, a condition that normally strikes people older than 70.
The sinus node regulates the rhythms of the heart through electrical impulses. Sick sinus syndrome can result in a heart rate that is abnormally fast (tachycardia), abnormally slow (bradycardia), or chaotic (atrial fribrillation). Hayes suffered from all three. "For me it was like when your car shorts out, all of a sudden there was a short somewhere and the heart rhythm just went crazy."
After being referred to a heart-rhythm specialist and transferred to New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital, Hayes was given a pacemaker. "When my heart goes below 60, or it skips a couple of beats, my pacemaker will kick in, which keeps me from hitting the floor again," she says with a laugh. While the low end of her heartbeat was covered with the pacemaker, she needed medication to control the tachycardia. After trying several drugs that left her with severe side effects, she was put on a calcium channel blocker. "It opens all the blood vessels, so the heart doesn't have to work so hard," but, says Hayes, "it's like going through menopause."
CHANGE, FOR THE BETTER
Getting used to hot flashes and sweats is just one of the adjustments Hayes has had to make over the past three years. She's also had to give up caffeine and sugar, avoid surges of adrenalin and limit her exercise. For the former college swimmer, "the hardest thing is not being able to be as physically active as I used to."
Still, says Hayes, "I'm a much happier person since this happened." She has a job that's more flexible and allows her to spend more time with her kids. Whereas she once fed off stress, now she's learned to manage it. "I make sure I get enough sleep. I do some meditation, I do some modified yoga, I walk on the treadmill and I keep everything in perspective. I don't let the little stuff bother me anymore," said Hayes.
Through all the procedures, tests and adjustments, Hayes has found support through an online community of women with heart disease at WomenHeart.org. "When you're in your 40s, your friends can't relate to you having heart disease," she says. "Let me tell you, those women at WomenHeart helped me through all of this." Being able to turn to women who've been through the procedure you are about to undergo, women who understand how you feel, has been invaluable, says Hayes, who's now a WomenHeart Champion.
Get tips on how to keep your heart healthy on our sister site That's Fit.
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