Tomorrow is the 2-year anniversary of my surviving a heart attack. As the Advent season progresses, I feel an immense thankfulness that God gave me another year.
A friend told me soon afterwards, “Your life just changed forever.” I had no idea how right she was. I also had no idea that the lifestyle changes I adopted would transform my life so that beyond surviving a heart attack, I’m thriving.
What changes did I make?
- Diet. Yes, I fall off the wagon, need to lose weight, and could do a better job. Even so, our diet has permanently changed. When a dietitian talked with me after the heart attack, she told me that if we ate a pound of bacon a week as a family, it was a regular part of our diet and had to stop. Now, the regular parts of our diet include each week we eat a package of baby spinach or kale, a container of hummus, egg whites for breakfast, flax whole grain wraps for my lunch sandwiches, and whole grain sandwich thins for my breakfast sandwich. Cheese used to be a staple – now it’s a treat and when we do use it I use less and use lower fat varieties. I still work to get the 5 a day fruits and vegetables. We eat more whole foods and fewer processed ones. I used to buy giant tubs of margarine. Now, we use a small container of the lower fat butter blends, using one of those in the same amount of time it used to take me to use the giant tubs. I never buy margarine or butter sticks. The kale or spinach are parts of my daily breakfast and lunch. I’ve learned to re-invent family favorite dishes to make them healthier. I started buying our meat from a local butcher shop that I know doesn’t add water or salt to meat and works with me for lower fat cuts of meat. Now, when I eat fatty foods of years past, I feel awful and recognize that they make me feel sluggish. Yes, I sometimes enjoy my biscuits and gravy or fried chicken. But they are rare instead of regular menu items now. Before, fried chicken was my go-to food when I was too busy to cook. Now it’s a rare treat.
- Exercise. Before the heart attack, I did not exercise. When I went up or downstairs, I felt out of breath. I took the suggestions of fitness experts I had interviewed for a healthier lifestyle article I wrote and followed them. Exercise is now scheduled. Most work mornings, unless I’m tired, I start my day with a big glass of water followed by half an hour on an exercise bike. Most lunch hours each week include a half hour of walking. I wear a pedometer to monitor my steps. Though some days I slack, there are at least a few days each week I hit the 10,000 steps per day. The number of steps I walk in that half hour has increased. Though I could do a better job, I no longer have any issues with stairs. My energy level often feels like it did 20 years ago. An unexpected perk of that higher energy level is more creativity and fun. When you feel good, it’s easier to laugh. I read studies that say that exercise improves brain function, and I agree. My heart rate and blood pressure are lower now than they have been in years. The medications I am on now for blood presssure are a fraction of the amounts I was on pre heart attack, with doses at the minimum levels possible.
- My Circle of Friends, Family, and Activities. With diet and exercise, I learned to cut the bad stuff like fatty foods and sitting all the time and add more good stuff – like whole foods and exercise. There were certain parts of my life that were stressful, filled with conflict, and made me unhappy. One at a time, I removed those stressors from my life and world. Until they were gone, I had no idea how much energy and happiness they sapped from me. Though some causes are noble and worthy, when they cease being fun, it’s time to move on to new challenges. Removing things and people from my life isn’t always a judgment against them as it is a recognition that my personality and skills are not a good fit to mesh with theirs. Never underestimate the power of finding the right fit for your world and friends. Surrounding yourself with positive people who appreciate you and others and who encourage you to grow is as transformational to my life as exercise and diet changes were.
In the same time frame, Richard and I have adjusted to having an empty nest and our role as parents of college students. I went back to work for the first time in 20 years and started a new career. I feel blessed to work for a company I love that lives by its core values of teamwork, integrity, and excellence. Never in my life have I worked with such a good team of supportive people who have become my extended family.
Community service is and will continue to be a large part of my life. Those who know me know I go in whole heart and soul to work for causes in which I believe. I am working to learn to pace myself and set boundaries. I removed some activities from my plate. At the same time, I’ve added others. At church, our parish has merged with another. As two cultures become one and people learn to work with new people in a new, larger parish, I can share my time and talents. As I watch this merger take root, I see many new opportunities for spiritual growth and evangelization.
Two years ago, as the cardiologist put the stent into my heart and I was awake on the operating table when my heart rate dropped to 20, I did not know if I would live to see my husband and kids again. I did get to see them again and appreciate them now more than ever.
Little did I know that that day would transform my whole world. My biggest life regret is that when my kids were growing up, they saw more of the stressed mom struggling to survive than the happier, kinder, and gentler one who has more fun that I am today.
With a happier and healthier heart, mind, and body, I see a world of hope and new opportunities.
God wasn’t done with me, and I know I’m still a work in progress. The best is yet to come.