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September 8, 2019, was a beautiful fall day, a Sunday made for a perfectly lazy day. But this day turned out not so perfect because I found out that I have congestive heart failure.

I’m telling you this story because today is National Wear Red Day and February, the American Heart Association’s Heart Awareness Month. I’m telling you because you or someone you know may be going through the same thing. This is why I will proudly wear red on Friday.

Denise and Daisy on the road. – Photo courtesy of Denise Lockwood

In Racine County, heart disease was among the leading cause of death in 2020. And it has consistently been a leading cause of death for quite some time. Racine County residents work hard, play hard, and many of us aren’t that great at taking care of ourselves. And when I say that, know that I am the first to admit that taking care of myself wasn’t a strong suit, until Sept. 8, 2019.

That’s when I found out I had non-ischemic cardiomyopathy, atrial flutter, and hyperlipidemia.

A half-hour later, the doctor told my husband that I would have been dead if we had waited one more day.

I woke up that morning feeling a mild but sharp pain on the left side of my chest. And when I say mild, the story I told myself was that I had just slept wrong. It felt like muscle pain, except it turned out to be my heart muscle. The pain increased as I breathed in. I couldn’t catch a full breath. My legs swelled up so much I could push my finger into my ankle, and the indentation would stay.

I knew I was in uncharted water here, but I didn’t have time to be sick. I was only 49 years old. I had payroll to meet. Stories to tell. And a business to run. But I was exhausted so I laid down on the couch. It had been my comfy place for months. Sometimes I would sleep the entire weekend away, and my husband told me repeatedly: get checked out.

I didn’t.

My congestive heart failure, my change in thinking

There were a lot of stories I told myself, even before that day. I was just tired. Yes, it was a stressful time in my life. But everyone has stress. Still, you tough it out. Work hard for what you want. Suck it up. Rub some dirt in it, you’ll be fine. Keep going. Eye on the prize. Eye. On. The. Prize.

I am my father’s child.

I worked 70 hours a week. I never went to the doctor. Drank alcohol to relieve stress and coffee to relieve fatigue. The breathing issues that had been going on all summer? Those were “just allergies.” Although, I could barely walk up the stairs without feeling out of breath.

And on that day, the pain sharpened like a fine point on a pencil. It dug deep down in my chest. I couldn’t get comfortable and the pain just got worse. When my husband got home, he saw it on my face.

“Are you OK?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“Do we need to go to the hospital?”

I shook my head up and down as tears started to fall. The pain radiated through my shoulders. “Now.”

On the way there, all I could think was, I’m fine, I don’t have time for this, and this hurts so bad. A half-hour later, the doctor told my husband that I would have been dead if we had waited one more day. He didn’t tell me this until months later.

Turning the corner

At Ascension-All Saints Hospital emergency room, the EKG showed that my heart was out of rhythm. In a normal sinus rhythm, your heart goes thump-thump, pause, thump-thump. Mine went: thump-pause, flutter-flutter, pause-thump.

My blood pressure had skyrocketed as my heart worked harder to circulate the blood in my body. My oxygen level lowered. Fluid backed up into my lungs. My legs and feet just ballooned.

A model of a heart in the doctor’s office sits to educate people on heart disease. – Photo courtesy of Denise Lockwood

A heart catheterization showed the left anterior descending artery was blocked by 25%. It is affectionately called “the widowmaker.” But I lucked out. I didn’t need an angioplasty to open any blocked arteries. My heart was only working at 35%. They gave me medications to drain the fluid. I walked out of the hospital 17 pounds lighter five days later because I had retained that much water.

Armed with a boatload of meds, orders to limit my salt intake, lose weight, watch my stress levels, drink less alcohol, lay off the caffeine, and work on my sleep – my story was shattered. But in a good way.

It’s all connected

A view at Shawnee National Forest in Illinois. – Photo courtesy of Denise Lockwood

A month later, my cardiologist explained that my untreated high blood pressure and sleep apnea put a lot of pressure on my heart. I added alcohol, caffeine and stress. That landed me in this story.

Today, I am in a much better place. I have a great team at Ascension that has helped me understand how to improve things. I have more “ists” than I care to admit: a pulmonologist, endocrinologist, cardiologist, electrophysiologist, and an internist (Dr. Durbin rocks, by the way). My high blood pressure, anemia and diabetes are well-controlled. I’ve lost 50 pounds in the last year, and I’m working on shedding more.

But it was a struggle to get here. I have a personal trainer by the name of Lynda Knudtson who has endured my on-again off-again love/hate relationship with working out. I backed off from drinking diet soda. I eat more protein and drink a lot less alcohol. Fiber is no longer my enemy.

My husband and I bought a camper so that we can eight-to-five from anywhere and explore the United States. Last year, we hiked campgrounds in Illinois, Tennessee and Missouri.

My work-life balance is better, but I’m sure my husband would somewhat disagree.

But the icing on the cake, the thing that makes my heart go pitter-patter is that my heart works at 58 percent and it’s getting stronger. So I can put more heart into things like being a grandma, helping my staff grow and enjoying the outdoors.

Grammy Denise and her lovely grandbaby. – Photo courtesy of Denise Lockwood

Prevent heart disease

If you want to learn more about how to prevent heart disease, here are a number of stories we’ve already written.

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.