• Cardiovascular

    Sharing Mayo Clinic: Heart health for myself and my family

Sandra Driggers is a nurse at Mayo Clinic in Florida who works in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine. This is her heart health story.

I struggled with my weight for most of my life. I never really gave a lot of thought to being healthy (or unhealthy), or about how my weight and lifestyle played a role in my future health.

But a little over 16 years ago, I had a heart attack.

Back then, at age 39, I never once thought about my risk for heart disease or a heart attack. I always thought heart issues were an older person’s issue, and more of a man’s concern. Definitely not a problem for a woman, especially not a young mom like myself.

It was 2005, and my sons were 6 and 12 at the time. Days were busy because I homeschooled them, did housework and generally, tried to do everything for everyone. Eventually, I started to notice I was having pain in my left arm anytime I would get stressed or exert myself in any way.

I kept telling myself that I had pulled a muscle. In the back of my mind, though, I was scared of the possibility that it could be something else. I wondered if it could be my heart. But, again, I was a young woman, so I convinced myself that those things do not happen to us.

As time passed, my symptoms worsened, but I continued to ignore them.  I remember going with my eldest son to pick up his baseball uniform. I couldn’t even walk across the field without stopping to catch my breath. When our family took a trip to a theme park in Orlando, Florida, I could barely go from one exhibit to the next. My heart was racing, and I got extremely winded very quickly.

Even as I would sit in my bathroom with an automated blood pressure cuff taking my pressure over and over again, watching it go higher, I'd tell myself that I was much too young for anything to happen to me.

The day finally came when I couldn’t ignore what was happening any longer. It was Aug. 30, 2005. The pain in my arm was tremendous.

My husband was at work, and I was too embarrassed to call emergency services. I felt ashamed at the thought that I might be having a heart attack. Instead, I called my mom, and told her I pulled a muscle. I asked her to take me to the hospital for X-rays, even though I think by that time I knew what it really was. As I looked at my precious young boys, I hugged and kissed them and told them how much I loved them, honestly expecting to never see them again. I thought I was going to die.

When we got to the hospital, I finally told my mom the words I had tried to avoid saying: “I think I’m having a heart attack!” My husband was called as the doctors got busy working on me. I had nitroglycerin patches applied, along with anti-anxiety medication to try to calm my nerves.

I was taken for a heart catheterization. It showed I had four blockages, including a blockage of the left anterior descending coronary artery. It was 98% blocked. I needed a triple bypass. It was the scariest thing I have gone through. My biggest fear was dying during the procedure, leaving my boys without a mom and my husband alone, trying to raise two young children on his own.

Surgery wasn’t easy. The surgeon removed the artery in my right arm for the bypass. Due to my age, they said it would last longer than a vein in the leg, which they often use for a bypass. Recovery was long and difficult. I spent several months in outpatient cardiac rehab. Being with other survivors really helped me accept what had happened and accept my new life. Then I got busy getting healthy.

During rehab, I heard people talk about having a second heart attack, and I knew I never wanted to go through that again. I got myself motivated by the thought of death and never seeing my children graduate or get married or getting to play with my future grandchildren.

I changed my lifestyle to become more heart healthy – including reading labels, counting calories and fat grams and walking daily. Over time, I lost 100 pounds. I made a career change – going back to school to become a cardiology nurse. I made heart health a priority, not just for me but for my family. It certainly wasn't easy, but it was important.

For over a decade, I maintained. But old habits are hard to break.

A few years ago, my husband was diagnosed with cancer and as I tried to cope, I ate. I am a stress eater and I ended up gaining over 75 pounds back.

But I was well-aware of the changes in my body this time. I would easily become short of breath. I found it difficult to walk from the clinic where I am a cardiology nurse to the staff parking lot without having to sit down and rest. I also began having that familiar arm pain – along with some chest pain. This time I knew it wasn't a pulled muscle.

In Feb. 2020, just as COVID-19 began to spread, I made an appointment with my cardiologist, Dr. Carolyn Landolfo. She ordered a cardiac catheterization to be done. Unfortunately, it showed I once again had blockages. I knew there was no one to blame but myself.

I was referred to bariatrics and given information on surgery options. After listening to everyone, I decided not to proceed with surgery. I had to find the motivation to change my life and do it on my own. This was my life and I had to take care of myself because this time it would be for life.

I had people depending on me still. I had patients to care for and a precious family, including two grandchildren I had always hoped for. I knew it would be a hard road, but I reset my focus. I knew what I must do to live.

I changed up recipes, swapping out ingredients for healthier options so I could still enjoy the food I loved. I got back to exercising and I found new ways to cope with stress, including taking walks, playing with the grandkids, and taking time for myself. I made caring for myself a priority.  

As a result, in the last year and a half, I have lost 120 pounds.

Today, I'm 56 and probably in the best shape of my life. I know there might be times when I will slip up or splurge. That's OK. I'm human. But I remain committed to educating others on the benefits of heart health and making sure others know my story. If I can have an impact on someone else, then my journey has been worth it.