For Karen Zimmerman, heart health isn’t just a personal issue. It’s a family issue.
Both of Karen’s parents, as well as her older brother and sister, have died from cardiovascular disease. A second older brother has had double-bypass and heart valve replacement surgeries. She’s lost other relatives to heart disease and stroke, and Karen herself has undergone three angioplasty procedures and, most recently, a stent placement to help keep open a blocked coronary artery. She also has lived for years with high cholesterol.
However, the “part that really hurts the most,” Karen says, “is that I passed it along to my children.”
High cholesterol is an issue for her two adult children, Karen notes. Earlier this summer, her 25-year-old son underwent heart valve surgery to correct a congenital heart valve problem. He’s doing well, but it’s something she thinks about often.
Karen’s first real warning about her family’s history of heart disease came at age 24 following the sudden death of her brother, a seemingly healthy and active Marine who died of a massive heart attack at age 32.
“The coroner who did the autopsy had all of my siblings and parents and I get on the phone extensions, and he said, ‘I’ll never meet you, I’ll never know what you look like, but everyone of you has heart disease and you need to get medical attention.’ So two weeks later I went to my general physician.”
That doctor’s visit brought startling news: Karen’s total cholesterol score was 692, nearly three times what’s considered “high” cholesterol. She immediately began making lifestyle changes—exercising more and altering her diet, for example—and taking cholesterol-lowering medications. Over time, she was able to cut her cholesterol in half.
“Which is still way too high,” she adds.
At age 34, Karen began experiencing severe chest pains. One day around this time, while taking a walk on the gravel road near her rural Riverside, Iowa, home, she felt her left leg and left arm go numb.
“I remember sitting down on the side of the road,” she says. “I knew I couldn’t make it the quarter-mile back to the house. I was just sitting there bawling, thinking ‘I could die here.’”
Follow-up tests revealed that Karen had 70 and 90 percent blockages in two arteries, which led to her first angioplasty procedures.
Today, at age 52, Karen is three years removed from her stent placement. She’s “feeling pretty good,” she says. She’s conscious of her food choices, and she and a co-worker take regular two-mile walks over their lunch hour.
Still, Karen acknowledges that it can be challenging to exercise year-round and stick with other heart-healthy steps.
“It can be hard to give up some of the foods you grew up with—foods that are probably not the healthiest for your heart,” she says. “I try. Can I try harder? Yes.”
“Know your family history” is a message Karen wants all women to remember when it comes to heart disease. She also emphasizes that women “know your body.”
“Several times over the years when I’ve gone to see cardiologists, they’ve said, ‘Oh, it’s nothing.’ But I’ve gotten to know what my body does. If something is not what you think it should be, you need to pursue it.”
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