Survivors Have Heart

Heartbeat Survivors

By Kimberly Turner

They’d only known each other for two and a half days, but the five heart attack survivors who gathered in New York for AstraZeneca’s Survivors Have Heart event were already planning their first annual reunion as they packed to go home.

The Survivors Have Heart essay contest — presented by AstraZeneca and celebrity trainer, fitness expert and heart attack survivor Bob Harper of NBC’s The Biggest Loser — encouraged heart attack survivors to share their personal stories. The five essay winners, along with their caregivers, were brought to New York in February for a powerful and emotional event.

A Mended Hearts Connection

Mended Hearts President Donnette Smith and Executive Director Norm Linsky also “played critical roles,” according to AstraZeneca.

“People came together with the same issues and shared, just like a Mended Hearts support meeting,” says Smith. “It was a perfect fit for us. Nine strangers met in a room and once the event was over, it was like family members getting together. That’s exactly what happens in our local chapters. Members become like family. They support each other, take care of each other. We see that everywhere. It’s just remarkable.”

“As with all of our industry partners, AstraZeneca shares our goal of advocating on behalf of patients to help them receive the best possible care,” says Linsky. “At Mended Hearts, we are collectively dedicated to heart disease prevention, education, research and training. For all of us, this was easily one of the high points of our decades of service in this field. It was inspirational.”

Choosing just five stories was a difficult task, but Linsky points out that the impact will reach well beyond the people in attendance in New York.

“These are five out of about 85 million people in the U.S. who are impacted in one way or another by heart disease,” he says. “These are success stories. With the proper treatment, support, tools and inspiration, these five survivors’ stories can similarly inspire tens of millions facing heart disease.”

Meet the Survivors

Let’s meet these five inspirational essay writers, two of whom (David McCullough and Kristi Wells) are active members of their local Mended Hearts chapters.

• Kim was working an hour away from home when he started experiencing heart attack symptoms. His wife convinced him to visit a nearby hospital rather than drive home. Kim is incredibly grateful to be alive, so he shares his story to educate others.

• Michele began to experience strange sensations while grocery shopping and directed the cashier to call 911. Michele’s doctor said it was a miracle that she was even alive, as her left atrial valve was 100% blocked. Michele is passionate about spreading awareness of cardiovascular health.

• Debbie suffered from a “widow maker” heart attack, which occurs when the left anterior descending (LAD) artery is blocked. She went into cardiac arrest and had to be shocked by an automated external defibrillator multiple times. While she says that making adjustments to her lifestyle is difficult, Debbie truly understands the importance of listening to her doctors.

• David McCullough’s wife drove him to the hospital at 2 a.m. where he learned that he had 100% blockage and required open-heart surgery. Since then, David and his wife (who learned she also had a blockage) have pledged to incorporate healthy lifestyle habits in their lives and those of their children. David is a member of Mended Hearts Chapter 42 in Rocky Mountain, Denver.

• Kristi Wells led a healthy and active life. When she experienced symptoms that worried her, she immediately went to the hospital and went into full cardiac arrest within 10 minutes of arriving. She ended up receiving two stents for blockages in her heart. Kristi is heartened knowing she has the power to make the most of life and share her awareness with others. She is the secretary of Mended Hearts Chapter 130 in Olympia, Washington.

Bob Harper: It Can Happen to Anyone

Kristi Wells of Chapter 130 says the event “was like going to Disneyland for an adult.”

One of her favorite moments involved an exercise with Bob Harper. “Bob went around the room and asked everybody to write down a few words about how we felt upon waking up in the hospital bed and finding that we had had a heart attack, because it was a real surprise for some people. It was for me. I woke up and there it was. The common theme was that we felt dependent and vulnerable and scared. Then they brought the caregivers out, and they told us via the video how they had viewed us, how they admired us and how they were worried for us. It was very powerful and dramatic.”

Bob Harper’s willingness to open up to the group and share his experiences resonated deeply with the other survivors. David McCullough of Chapter 42 says, “Sitting down and talking with Bob was very special to me. You look at him and say, ‘Oh gosh, he is a celebrity and a professional trainer,’ but he’s just as real as you and I. He had the same struggles we had. It really just affirmed to me that it doesn’t matter who you are. It can strike you. Heart attacks don’t choose.”

Donnette Smith says, “It dawned on me when I was sitting there watching Bob Harper talk to these people that a lot of heart attack survivors blame themselves in some way. It’s called an ‘acquired disease,’ and I hate that term, but people feel like they did something to cause it. And with him sitting there, a physical trainer who is in tip-top physical shape — he does everything right and yet he still had a heart attack — I think it took away some of the guilt. It can happen to the healthiest of the healthiest, not just the average person. AstraZeneca really hit it out of the park when they selected him for this event.”

“We are especially grateful to Bob Harper,” agrees Norm Linsky, “for serving as such an inspirational role model, past, present and future. He really touched people.”

The Power of Sharing

In many ways, the Survivors Have Heart event was a microcosm of what Mended Hearts members around the nation do every day: sharing stories, providing support, relating to each other’s struggles, giving someone a shoulder to cry on or a friend to help celebrate victories.

McCullough sees his win in this contest as another opportunity to help others. “I struggle with the question of why me?’ Why did I survive this horrific event that all of the doctors tell me I shouldn’t have survived? What do I do with this?” he asks.

“When I heard that my story was selected, I immediately thought, ‘This is another opportunity.’ It could potentially give me the opportunity to make a difference for somebody else. Even if it’s just one person. Even if it’s just making someone stop and think about the one bad habit they have or the hesitations that people have about symptoms. I want the opportunity to say to somebody, ‘Listen, if you’re having these symptoms, you need to check it out. This is not worth your life. It’s not worth widowing your husband or wife or orphaning your children.’ That’s really what I saw as the ‘why’ for me.”

The event concluded with peer-to-peer exercises for both survivors and caregivers led by Smith and Linsky, and the new friends ended their trip with “see you laters” rather than “goodbyes.”

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