Eight days after giving birth to her son, Cameron, in April 2011, Rachel D'Souza-Siebert’s heart was aglow with love. It also was about to break.
D'Souza-Siebert suffered a spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), a rare condition in which a coronary artery tears, blocking blood flow and causing a heart attack. She recalls searing pain through her back and chest that literally knocked her to her knees. The next day, lying in the hospital’s cardiac intensive care unit, the new mom learned she was a heart attack survivor.
“My recovery is an ongoing journey,” D’Souza-Siebert says. “While I was on maternity leave, I was able to attend cardiac rehab at a local hospital three times a week to get comfortable with exercising. Once I was cleared to go back to the gym, I sought out a trainer who could teach me new ways of doing cardio and strength training while following my doctor's orders.”
D’Souza-Siebert also began placing more emphasis on a heart-healthy diet, reducing salt, cholesterol and fat, and focusing on fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. She enjoys active pursuits like hiking and biking with her husband and son. “And I started blogging as an outlet to work through my emotions associated with my heart attack and also to encourage other women to take their heart health seriously,” she says.
D’Souza-Siebert is doing everything right to avoid another heart attack, and her example of heart-healthy living should be followed by everyone, especially because cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in America.
“We’ve made a lot of progress, but heart disease still affects many individuals and families,” says Dr. Timothy Schloss, a cardiologist with Mercy Heart and Vascular in Fenton. He points to a smoke-free lifestyle as the first step in heart health, along with diet and exercise to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. “The other thing is developing a good relationship with your physician and discussing specific risks you may have, such as a family history of heart or vascular disease,” he says.
One reason that physicians emphasize weight control through diet and exercise is because obesity is linked to Type 2 diabetes, which is a major risk factor for heart disease. Other recommendations, such as taking a daily aspirin or undergoing specific tests, are part of a ‘complex equation’ that must be determined based on an array of individual behaviors, health conditions and genetic traits, Schloss notes.
Symptoms of heart attack include pressure in the center of the chest, pain in the shoulders, neck or arms, and chest discomfort with fainting, sweating or nausea. If you or someone you know experiences these symptoms, call 911 immediately, advises Chris Lipp, director of cardiac services at Missouri Baptist Medical Center.
“EMS (Emergency Medical Services) can start treatment in the field, and in most cases, they can activate the response system in the hospital from the ambulance,” Lipp says. EMS personnel partner with hospital-based cardiac response teams to ensure that the team is in place and waiting for the patient’s arrival. Being prepared for the incoming case, specialists stand ready to perform cardiac catheterization, a procedure to open blocked blood vessels. Saving time means saving lives, he notes.
As for D’Souza-Siebert, her prognosis is good. By carefully designing a lifestyle that will protect her heart in years to come, she’s looking forward to watching Cameron grow up.