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Finding Disease in a Young Heart

As Lorie Helgeson walks through the mall with her 13-year-old daughter, she gently brushes hair off the girl’s face.

Their next stop is Carissa’s favorite store to pick out a dress for an upcoming formal dance. As they sit in a coffee shop and discuss their plans for the cheerleading contest where the dress will be worn, the mother and daughter sit closely together, tenderly smiling at each other as they talk.

About a year ago, Lorie worried that she might not live to have these moments. The then 40-year-old woman sat alone in her hospital room with the news that she had just had a heart attack. Her daughter was the only thought on her mind that day.

“I just didn’t know who would take care of her, who would be her mom,” says Lorie, fighting back tears. “You don’t think you’re going to have to worry about this at this age.”

No reason to worry

Lorie had no reason expect that she’d have heart problems. She was young and she tried to do her best to live healthily, eating right and exercising. Every day on her lunch hour, she’d work out with a friend. Just a few years before she’d run her first half-marathon.

But over about a six-month period, her energy had started to gradually decrease. The usually early riser would fight to drag herself out of bed in the morning and came home at night exhausted. Running, or even just walking up the stairs, was almost impossible.

“I knew that something was wrong, but it happened so gradually that I just didn’t do anything about it,” Lorie said. “I really didn’t understand how bad I was feeling until later.”

A battle to breathe

Then one morning in September 2009, she got up with pain in her chest and arm, feeling nauseas and weak. Her whole body was soaked in sweat as she lay on her bed, fighting to catch her breath. Eventually, her boyfriend convinced her that she needed to go to the emergency room.

As soon as she came into Sanford’s Emergency Department, a team of eight people were checking her blood pressure, taking blood samples, doing an EKG and slipping a nitrogen tablet under her tongue. An early test came back normal, but her cardiologist, Dr. Tom Stys, asked her to stay a few more hours while they re-ran a second set of tests.

“When he came back and told me that I’d had a heart attack, I was really in denial,” Lorie said. “He was talking to me and I just couldn’t even believe what he had to say.”

Surgery to save

The results showed that she had a mild heart attack with minimal damage. She underwent surgery yet that night to put in a stint, since tests showed that her main artery was over 80 percent blocked. As she woke up later that night in the hospital room, with family members, including her daughter Carissa there to see her, she realized that her life had been saved.

“I was scared, but I knew that I was on my way back,” Lorie said. “The next day I was ready to get out there and start running again.”

Lorie talked with her doctors, finding out that her family history had put her at increased risk for a heart attack. Her father and grandmother both had had open heart surgery, although at a much later age. She also realized that her cholesterol and stress levels also were problematic.

“All those things were there,” she said. “I just never realized it.”

Healing her heart

Since her heart attack, Lorie has been through cardiac rehabilitation, getting her heart and body gradually used to increasing her activity level. She takes four medications daily and goes in for follow-up testing every six months. She’s worked to lower her cholesterol level by three points.

“I want to be around for my princess for years to come,” Lorie said. “I have lots of reasons to stay healthy.”

She puts her arm around her daughter protectively, saying that she knows that Carissa will be aware of the risks that her family’s health history brings. Lorie tells everyone she knows not to ignore those warning signs of pain or discomfort, like she did.

“What I’ve learned is that you have to listen to your body,” she said. “If you pay attention and something doesn’t seem to be right, it probably isn’t.”

Posted Date: March 2011