Pregnant with her first baby at 23 years old, Mary Anne Norling was excited and nervous, bracing herself for the Washington, D.C. summer heat when she found out she had pre-eclampsia. The first health scare of many she would endure and survive Norling didn’t know that much about the disease. Ultimately, it led to an emergency cesarean section and even post-eclampsia.
It was only two and a half years later that she had a severe stroke due to a congenital arteriovenous malformation which may have been weakened by the preeclampsia. When malformation burst in her left brain, Norling lost all mobility on her right side, including her speech. Though she re-learned to walk fairly quickly, it took two to three years working closely with a speech therapist to regain her ability to speak. Now, she knows that research is beginning to link pre-eclampsia to an increased risk of developing heart disease. And that advocating for women’s health is something within her power.
An active WomenHeart Champion, Norling came to Washington, D.C. earlier this month for the Spring Leadership Weekend. Along with her cosupport network leader, Kristina Reu and Karen Roman RN of the Cardiac and Pulmonary Wellness Center (El Camino Hospital), Norling visited her congresswoman, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) to share some of WomenHeart’s legislative priorities, including improving access to health care for women.
“We were expecting 15-20 minutes of her time, but she had Kristina, Karen, and me there for almost an hour, asking us questions,” Norling recalls.
As an advocate for women’s heart disease, Norling knows firsthand the importance of persevering.
Though she had developed pre-eclampsia during her first pregnancy earlier in life and a subsequent stroke, it wasn’t until her 50s when Norling was living an active, healthy lifestyle on the go that her health suffered drastically. She had been on cholesterolreducing drugs or statins since her early 30s because of challenges with her cholesterol. Then one year, it bounced up to around 300 while on the statin and she started having arm pain upon exertion, so her internist suggested she get a full cardiology work-up.
“Even with all my background of high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia, history of a stroke,— and after the stress echo workup, I was told there was nothing wrong with me,” Norling says. “The doctor did say to me, ‘If you really want, you can come back and have dye put in, but he didn’t recommend it.”
So, she didn’t. The last thing he said to her was, “What are you doing here? You’re just fine.”
Only four months later, while vacationing in Tahoe with her family, Norling suffered a heart attack at age 57.
“I was just grateful, I mean, thank heavens—because we do a lot of boating—we were not out in the middle of the lake that day,” Norling says. She was rushed to the closest hospital equipped with a catheterization laboratory, in Reno, about an hour away.
Luckily, Norling received the care she needed, though she still has two other partial blockages today. Following her heart event, Norling said she had to overcome a feeling that the medical system had let her down. “I was a mess,” Norling recalls. “I couldn’t believe this happened to me. I was angry, sad, and it was a real loss for me.”
But slowly, over time, she found the support of her local hospital, El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, Ca., where she lives. “There are a lot of wonderful cardiologists in our area, and I had to learn to find the one that would listen to me,” Norling says.
“You hear all the time with women’s heart stories that it is not uncommon that they had to see two to three cardiologists until they found somebody who would listen to them,” Norling says. “Well, I’m on my third cardiologist, and he’s wonderful.”
When one of the nurses at her hospital asked if she was interested in training with WomenHeart, Norling seized the opportunity.
“My recovery from my heart attack and facing living with heart disease were due to the nurses who helped me navigate my way back,” says Norling. “I was a basket case. I wanted to pay it forward to other women.”
Today, Norling, a 2015 WomenHeart Champion, tries to eat healthy and work out five days a week so she will be around for her supportive husband, three married children and “one perfect granddaughter.” She co-leads the support group at El Camino Hospital with fellow WomenHeart Champion Kristina Reu.
With Reu and Roman, Norling feels proud to have informed the Rep. Eshoo (D-CA) about the WomenHeart organization, women’s heart health issues, non-medical switching, and the importance of support groups.
Norling continues to serve as an active member of her community, working to give back as much as she receives.
“I want to be around,” Norling says. “I am blessed.”