By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
February is a time when the nation shines a light on heart disease awareness with National Heart Month.
Heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the United States, according to the American Heart Association, and the effects of COVID-19 will only drive that statistic higher.
According to a Jan. 27 release from the association, the cardiovascular health and mortality rates will likely be influenced by lifestyle changes linked to the pandemic – most notably unhealthy eating and drinking habits, as well as reduced exercise.
As both a cardiac patient and cardiac nurse at Grandview Medical Center, Kristina Bradley has seen and experienced firsthand what a diagnosis can do to a patient.
“I see patients get scared to do anything,” she said. “They don’t want to go out and live.
“To me, you’ve been given a second chance at life.”
Her response was to set a mission that she would volunteer her time to support not only cardiac research, but also awareness and her fellow cardiac patients.
Neglecting the Signs
Bradley grew up with a mother who worked in health care, which drew her to a career in nursing.
“I had just a few little heart issues when I was in high school, and that drew me to the (cardiac) part of nursing,” she said. “I just really like taking care of people, so it was a natural fit.”
Part of being a nurse is a tendency to downplay your own issues.
“You’re so used to taking care of people that you don’t want to be the one who is sick,” she said.
“It’s almost like you go into a state of denial.”
Such was the case when Bradley began experiencing chest pain off and on. She was nauseated the evening before her heart attack but played it off, as many would, by blaming it on something she ate.
“That morning at 2:30 a.m. I woke up really sick to my stomach,” she said.
When she went to the bathroom, she noticed she was experiencing abnormal sweating.
“My chest was hurting and my hands were tingling,” she said. “The pain started radiating to my jaw and it was one of those pains when you feel like you’re about to die.”
She knew at that point that something was truly wrong and it was time to go to the hospital.
When Bradley experienced this cardiac event, she was 38 years old, and the cause was surprising.
After tests were run and conclusions were made, Bradley was diagnosed with spontaneous coronary artery dissection. It isn’t a common diagnosis.
“With this particular type of heart attack, the cause of it is not known,” she said. “They are doing a whole lot of research into this at the Mayo Clinic.”
In essence, the walls of the artery begin to thin and split open.
“You don’t have the plaque build up that you would have in a typical heart patient,” she said.
There are a few potential causes for the condition, Bradley noted, which include stress and hormones, and the condition mainly affects women who are under the age of 55.
“They call this particular heart attack ‘a young person’s heart attack,’” she said. “People who do work out and do those things that we are supposed to do, this is the heart attack that they have.”
Bradley had three stents put in before her left main artery tore, resulting in four bypasses. She spent 24 days in the intensive care unit at Grandview and spent so much time lying in bed that she had to relearn how to walk, among other basic tasks.
Life Must Go On
Bradley is highly involved with the Alabama chapter of the American Heart Association and the annual Birmingham Heart Walk.
Her driving force is her desire to show other cardiac patients that their diagnosis doesn’t mean the fun is over.
“This is not where your life ends,” she said. “Your life didn’t end because you had a heart attack or had bypass surgery. You should really start living at this point.
“It’s important for me to let people see that, while you do need to eat healthy and exercise, you have to keep going, you can’t just stop enjoying life.”
That being said, Bradley also has seen the stress of the pandemic cause people to avoid the aspects of self-care that aren’t fun. But maintaining health remains essential.
“I just had a patient call who was having chest pain and she said she didn’t want to come in,” Bradley said. “COVID has really paralyzed people, to a point where they are not taking care of themselves like they should.”
She has seen patients gain weight because they aren’t involved in their typical activities, but it isn’t that difficult to choose to be active.
“Just take a walk, or even just do some laps around your house,” she said. “You don’t have to be around people to be able to stay fit.”
Some of Bradley’s favorite ways to stay healthy are simple.
“I’m not supposed to do very much weightlifting,” she said. “When you’ve had your chest cracked open you’re not supposed to lift too much.”
Instead, she opts for cardio – playing with the dog, taking walks with her family and just getting outside and moving around.
“I have two boys that like to cook with me,” she said. “They will come up with different things that they want to try with me. That really helps, because I know I have to eat healthy for me, but now I’m also having to watch out for them because I know its hereditary.”
Her family supports her making healthy choices. They don’t eat a lot of fast food. When they do eat out, they lean toward grilled chicken and salads.
“You have to keep going,” Bradley said, adding that it applies to COVID-19 as well. You can follow health and safety measures, but don’t let it stop you from living a healthy life. There are ways to safely maintain your health, she said.
American Heart Association’s Birmingham Heart Ball Set for March 11
Rather than hosting its traditional in-person gala, the American Heart Association has opted to introduce the Birmingham Heart Ball Digital Experience.
The event will take place at 6 p.m. March 11 and will be free to those who register at birminghamheartball.heart.org.
Serving as emcees for the program will be Sheri Falk and Guy Rawlings of WVTM-13.
In addition, this year’s Heart Ball honoree, Tim Vines, will be recognized. Vines is president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama. He will be recognized along with his wife, Antoinette Vines, founder of Mercy Deliverance Ministries.
To date, the Birmingham Heart Ball has raised more than $17 million for local research, advocacy and community education efforts to fight cardiovascular disease and stroke, which are the first and fourth leading causes of death in Alabama, respectively.
For more information, visit birminghamheartball.heart.org.