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4 Lessons I've Learned From an Unexpected Diagnosis

“Mrs. Hudock, you have a number of heart abnormalities.”

The cardiologist was speaking to me after he had viewed my first echocardiogram.

“The right side of your heart is severely enlarged. You have several valves that are leaking. You may have pulmonary hypertension. You may have atrial fibrillation, and you may have a hole in your heart.”

What?

I could not believe I was hearing this. I am a nutritionist and eat an almost perfect whole foods diet. I have low blood pressure and low cholesterol. I exercise all the time. I can’t be having heart problems.

But I was.

I had begun having heart palpitations that were increasing in length and frequency. I was also tired all the time. Because I had previously diagnosed hypothyroidism and low adrenal status, for a number of years I chalked my symptoms up to poorly functioning hormones.

I would have ignored these symptoms altogether had it not been for my friend Carolyn, who is a personal trainer at a local fitness facility. I had recently begun seeing her to help with my workouts. Carolyn had a heart attack a few years ago while leading an exercise class. She had no previous history of heart problems and so her heart attack was a total surprise. Because of her experience, Carolyn was acutely aware that subtle symptoms can sometimes be a clue to a serious condition.

“Ginger, you shouldn’t ignore these symptoms,” Carolyn exclaimed. “These could indicate a problem with your heart.” Following her recommendation, I made an appointment with a cardiologist.

This was the start of a six month expedition to identify the cause of my symptoms. I saw three different cardiologists, plus a pulmonologist. I had numerous medical tests and three different cardiac procedures. Along the way, the doctors determined that I did not have pulmonary hypertension. But I did have atrial fibrillation and a congenital atrial septal defect.

Who gets diagnosed with a congenital heart condition in their 50s? Me.

I have learned so much over these past nine months. Some of this may even encourage you, the reader:

1. Sometimes our bodies are broken in ways that can’t be fully repaired, and that is OK.

I had an ablation that successfully stopped the aFib. The next month an Amplatzer device was inserted, which successfully repaired the atrial septal defect. My right heart is still enlarged and several of my valves still have leakages. All of these may or may not get better over time. I am also at risk for future complications such as a recurrence of atrial fibrillation, pulmonary hypertension, or stroke – even with a repaired atrial septal defect. All humans have limitations in our lives. Learning about, and even embracing those limitations can help us to become all we are meant to be.

2. Great nutrition and exercise are the best foundation for dealing with any condition.

I had been eating a highly nutritious diet with lots of plants and minimal processed foods for 10 years. I was also taking appropriate supplements and was exercising three or more times per week. These factors helped me to handle the multiple procedures with little downtime and minimal side effects. If you are unsure what the best way of eating or exercising is for your condition, consult with a professional nutritionist or trainer for help.

3. I am learning to be as intentional as possible and have gratitude for each day.

I have always been an action-oriented person and thought my life would be great if I made the right choices. From the first cardiologist visit, the illusion of control was taken from me. I had to wait days or weeks for each new doctor’s appointment, each new test, each new procedure. I now understand that today is the only day we are promised. I have focused on figuring out what is most important and then being intentional about using my time. When I have days when I do not feel as well and can’t be so active, then I read a novel I have been wanting to read instead of worrying about what I did not accomplish. I am incredibly blessed to have a husband who was with me through every doctor’s visit, test and procedure. I strive to show him my love and gratitude every day.

4. I am continuing to help others using the gifts I have been given.

Congenital or chronic health conditions do not seem like gifts, but they can be. Take what you have learned from your health challenges to help other people. I was already helping people through my nutrition counseling and writing. Discovering my congenital heart defect has only increased my desire to serve others.

When you or a family member get an unexpected diagnosis, lean into it. Learn all you can about the condition and what self-help measures you can take such as healthier eating and exercising. Intentionally look for the good and be grateful for that in your life. Use what you learn to help others. Then you will be able to thrive through your unexpected health challenge.

Getty Image by andrei_r