Pam Lessley, center, with her mother, daughter and granddaughter. Photo by Connie Duvall/MMI
No one would have suspected that Pam was sick, least of all Pam. At 57, Pam, an IT Project Manager for an insurance company, had faithfully gone for regular medical check-ups and preventive screenings since her mid 30s. But she had been experiencing a series of classic heart disease symptoms—jaw pain, elevated blood pressure, periodic pain between her shoulder blades, and breathlessness on exertion. She had to stop her favorite hobby—riding her motorcycle—because it made her too tired.
She went for an electrocardiogram or EKG and learned her heart was in distress. A heart catheterization on March 8, 2007, showed three almost totally blocked arteries. She needed to have open heart surgery with at least 4, possibly 5 bypasses--IMMEDIATELY. Her family was shocked.
Her first thought was, "How could I have been walking around like this, without knowing?" Then, "How can I trust my body again?"
The weeks after her surgery were a blur of weakness, pain and survival. She had plenty of people around, all praying for her and helping in any way they could. She found a safe haven in cardiac rehabilitation, where she was among those who had experienced something similar. There she could share her feelings of fear and uncertainty about living with heart disease. What would happen when she had to resume life without this critical support? She didn't know anyone her age with heart disease. Who would understand her fear?
Her family saw Pam go from hard-charging professional to a weak, teary, vulnerable woman. Pam recalls that the emotional stress invaded all aspects of her life and relationships. She was healing just fine physically, but emotionally, she was falling apart. She tried to hide it from her children and friends, but it was taking its toll. Her husband tried to be empathetic, but he didn't know exactly what to do and this put a strain on their relationship.
Pam described herself at that point as made up of several acronyms:
CAD – coronary artery disease
GAD – general anxiety disorder
SAD – I'll never be happy again
MAD – I'll never be well again
All of this was about to change! Pam says her faith and some serendipitous occurrences helped her return to living life again.
First she read From the Heart, a book written by a heart disease survivor, Kathy Kastan. A resource in the book led her to WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease and through WomenHeart she connected with another heart sister exactly her age who also had bypass surgery. Finally someone who understood! The turning point came when Pam ended up in the ER thinking she was having a heart attack. It turned out to be a panic attack, but while in the hospital Pam met with a social worker who directed her toward a cognitive therapy program. Through cognitive therapy one works to overcome difficulties by identifying and changing dysfunctional thinking, behavior, and emotional responses.
Simply put, Pam had to re-learn how to live her life. It took some months for the depression to lift. Today, Pam continues to apply what she learned in therapy to her everyday life. Her connection to WomenHeart is the lifeline she now extends to other women living with heart disease. Her passion is reaching out to other women with heart disease and encouraging them to seek help from a mental health professional. She believes recognition of the psychological effects of heart disease need to be integrated into a woman's heart care plan early on, so she can be prepared, recognize the signs of depression, and seek help. This Mother's Day, Pam urges all women to take stock of their emotional well-being, as well as their physical well-being and make good health their #1 priority.
• On a weekly basis, get at least 2.5 hours of moderate physical activity, 1.5 hours of vigorous physical activity, or a combination of both.
• Eat a nutritious diet with a lot of fruits and veggies.
• Visit a health care professional for a heart check up.
• Avoid risky behaviors, like smoking.
• Pay attention to your mental health, including getting enough sleep and managing stress.