Iowa City, IA
It was an unseasonably warm day in February 2012 when Carolyn Briggs Gallogly decided to walk to the nearby drugstore in Iowa City.
Carolyn, a retired teacher who was working as a child daycare provider, pushed a small child in her care in a stroller along a well-traveled street.
They’d gone a few blocks. Then, almost without warning, Carolyn collapsed on the sidewalk. Her heart had stopped. She’d gone into cardiac arrest.
A passing motorist—an associate director of athletic training with the University of Iowa Athletics Department—noticed the stroller tilting on the sidewalk. He pulled over, called 911, and immediately began chest compressions. At almost the same time, a fire truck returning from another call came onto the scene. Then a police car arrived, followed moments later by an ambulance.
“I feel so lucky that I wasn’t in my house when this happened,” Carolyn says. “It was remarkable how it all came together.”
Luck certainly was on Carolyn’s side this day— less than 8 percent of people who experience cardiac arrest outside the hospital survive. In fact, according to American Heart Association statistics, the immediate CPR Carolyn received doubled or tripled her chance of survival.
At the time of her episode, Carolyn had an abnormally low level of potassium in her blood, likely due to a diuretic medication she was taking for high blood pressure—a problem she was working to correct. This may have sent Carolyn’s heart into an abnormal rhythm, causing her cardiac arrest.
Emergency medical personnel used a defibrillator to “jump-start” Carolyn’s heart on the way to the hospital. While treating her at University of Iowa Heart and Vascular Center, doctors also found that she had three major blockages in her heart that required the placement of stents to help restore blood flow. Fortunately, the procedures went well, and she didn’t have permanent heart muscle damage. Ironically, if Carolyn hadn’t had a near fatal cardiac arrest that day, the blockages might not have been detected or treated, leaving her at risk of a heart attack.
After Carolyn’s experience, she did recall periodically experiencing symptoms over the previous months—shortness of breath and dizziness, for example. On other occasions, she’d feel sweaty even after doing simple household tasks.
“It wasn’t anything extreme. I’m 68, so I just thought I’m probably not exercising as much as I should,” she says. “I took note of it and even mentioned it to my doctor, but none of it seemed alarming.”
Carolyn also “explained away” her symptoms to herself. “I felt like a healthy person,” she says. “I’m not a natural exerciser, but I’m active. I’d chase these little children around all day. Some days, I wouldn’t sit down from 7:30 in the morning until 5:30 at night.”
Carolyn says coming to terms with heart disease has been a life-changing experience. She enrolled in a cardiac rehabilitation program called CHAMPS (Cardiovascular Health, Assessment, Management, and Prevention Service) through UI Heart and Vascular Center. She’s made exercise a priority, and with the help of the CHAMPS dietician she’s incorporated new, heart-healthy recipes into her diet.
Carolyn’s two daughters have been her active partners in heart health, as well.
“I’m seeing it come true in front of my eyes,” she says. “We’ve been eating better and exercising more, and we’re really watching stress. It’s not easy to change your emphasis on your health. It takes real conscious effort, and if you are lucky you have family members who are joining in with you.”
Not only has Carolyn adopted healthier habits; she’s also developed a fresh perspective on life.
“I really do notice my footsteps these days. I speak up more and hug a lot of people, and I wear bigger, bolder jewelry! I am trying to take everything good from it that I can,” she says.
Carolyn is sharing her story because she knows it’s easy for women to ignore or “explain away” symptoms like she did.
“I’d heard the message about women and heart disease, but I hadn’t put it together with my shortness of breath,” she says. “My daughters tried to get me to pursue it with my doctor because they could see something wasn’t right. I was not hearing—the dynamics of family can get in the way—and I was a little stubborn.
“So often, something we learn is something we’ve heard 50 times before,” she adds. “Repetition works. If enough people pass the message along that we must pay immediate attention to symptoms, each of us will finally find someone who hammers the message home for us.”
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