February is Heart Health Month and in light of this, we sat down with Tracey Long who recently underwent triple bypass surgery (CABG) due to her underlying heart disease. Tracey has been gracious enough to share her personal experiences with us and speak to the mind body connection and how it saved her life. How did you know you were having #hearthealth problems? Share your story with us in the comments below.
Dr. Pendharkar: Tracey, thank you so much for talking with us today! I’d like to give people a window into your world so they can better understand your circumstances. Can you start off by telling us about yourself and specifically about the day you experienced your symptoms which exposed your diagnosis of coronary artery disease. I want to spend time exploring the mind/body connection and what that means. Specifically related to your experiences with your health this summer. Can you tell us more about your experience?
Tracey: Certainly! I am a massage therapist and have always considered myself to be a champion of my own health. This was a path I was pushed towards since I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 8. Once I got that diagnosis, I really had to commit to my own health and understand my body. There were no excuses it was life or death. I’m a working mother who’s always juggling multiple things. I try my best to unwind and engage in self care but it’s not always easy!
So on the night my body gave me the message about my diagnosis of coronary artery disease, I just knew something wasn’t right. I had been under a lot of stress in the months prior, including going through a divorce and losing my apartment. I was lying in bed one evening, getting ready to go to sleep after a not particularly active day (I’d spent most of the day reading and searching for jobs) and when I turned on my left side, I felt my heart beating abnormally for a few moments. I also felt some upper back pain around my right shoulder. The pain was sort of sharp, not severe, but persistent. While lower back pain was normal for me, upper back pain was not so that got me feeling worried. Even though it was pretty late in the evening, I decided to go to the emergency room (ER) to make sure it wasn’t a heart attack. As a massage therapist I’m knowledgeable on some basic health conditions.
In the ER, diagnostic tests were done, and some blockages were found in my arteries. I was diagnosed with atherosclerosis, which is when plaque builds up in your arteries, causing them to become clogged, reducing blood flow and oxygen to cells. I was given a cardiac catheterization which would determine the severity of my blockages and help the doctors to decide the best course of action. The doctors felt that because I was a type 1 diabetic, a stent would not be the best thing for me, so they decided to perform a Coronary Artery Bypass Graft (CABG). In my case, a triple bypass.
Dr. Pendharkar: Tracey, thank you for sharing your remarkable story. I’m glad you are better now. When we talk about the mind body connection, we are getting at an acute sense of awareness of what’s happening in one’s own body. So many times, when I talk with patients and ask them simple questions about how they feel, there is a disconnect with the person and their own body. I think this also relates to the fact that only 12% of U.S. adults have proficient health literacy and this number needs to be higher — people need more exposure to health in general, so they can talk about health in a general sense and how it relates to their own body.
Back to your specific case, how did you connect your symptoms with the fact that you needed to seek help and get attention? How did what you sense in your body translate to a rational thought in your mind that some problem existed? Why did you choose to not brush off your problem as so many of us do?
Tracey: As a massage therapist, I often think about the connection between mind and body, and how to listen and be more perceptive about what is going on inside. As a diabetic, I probably also have an acute awareness of the signs and signals that my body puts out. I have to know when things are off-balance. I knew that evening that it was unusual for me to feel pain in my upper back, and I knew that something was not right if my heart was skipping beats when resting. My rationale for going to the hospital was that considering my age and my history of type 1 diabetes and being a former smoker, if I didn’t get checked out, I would sit awake all night thinking I was having a heart attack. Even though it was late and I was tired, I knew that my body was warning me that something was off. That, to me, warranted a visit to the emergency room.
Dr. Pendharkar: Thank you Tracey, it sounds like while you may not have been aware of what was happening exactly, you do have a deeper mind body connection which literally saved your life. How did you develop this ability and what recommendations would you give other patients who have yet to develop this ability?
Tracey: Again, I took into account my personal history, age, risk factors. I cannot stress enough that one must be attuned to one’s body especially if there are significant risk factors for heart disease such as family history, smoking, diabetes, or high cholesterol. Just don’t ignore your instincts. For me, that meant trusting the little voice in my head telling telling me that something was wrong. That pain was a symptom and to think of it as a good thing, it was trying to warn me. If you feel that something is unusual for you, see your doctor right away.
Dr. Pendharkar: Tracey, this must have been a scary experience for you and we are grateful to you for sharing it with us. In summary, are there any final points you can make which may help guide others in case they find themselves in a similar situation?
Tracey: I listened to my body and followed my gut instinct to be checked out. It turned out I was right, something was very wrong, and I received excellent care.I underwent a life-altering surgery and now I feel so much better than before. I listened to my wonderful doctors advice on which course of treatment would be best as well as which lifestyle habits would be healthiest after heart surgery.
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, killing 289,758 women in 2013—that’s about 1 in every 4 female deaths
- Although heart disease is sometimes thought of as a “man’s disease,” around the same number of women and men die each year of heart disease in the United States. Despite increases in awareness over the past decade, only 54% of women recognize that heart disease is their number 1 killer
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death for African American and white women in the United States. Among Hispanic women, heart disease and cancer cause roughly the same number of deaths each year. For American Indian or Alaska Native and Asian or Pacific Islander women, heart disease is second only to cancer
- About 5.8% of all white women, 7.6% of black women, and 5.6% of Mexican American women have coronary heart disease
- Almost two-thirds (64%) of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms. Even if you have no symptoms, you may still be at risk for heart disease