16. Cross My Heart

16. Cross My Heart

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

Cross My Heart

Good health is a duty to yourself, to your contemporaries, to your inheritors, to the progress of the world.

~Gwendolyn Brooks

Substantial disease, substantial thickening, substantial, substantial. The word kept repeating itself in my head. All I could hear was the word “substantial.” I sat in the hot car with the Arizona heat engulfing me and tears flowing down my face.

The day had begun with a routine checkup at the cardiologist. I went to receive the results of annual blood work and an ultrasound of my heart. After surgery to treat an arrhythmia eight years earlier, I had been heart-healthy and had no reason to think otherwise. That’s why the test results shocked me.

“You have substantial heart disease that has begun this past year,” the doctor stated matter-of-factly.

“What?” I stammered in shock, hearing only the word “substantial.”

“Yes, the lower chamber of your heart has substantially thickened this past year.”

“What do you mean? How did this happen?”

“Probably from high blood pressure,” she said.

“But I don’t have high blood pressure.” Numb, I felt like I was stuck in a bad dream.

“Your blood pressure probably has been spiking with stress. Have you been under stress?”

“Yes.” This had been the most stressful year of my life at the high school where I worked as a guidance counselor. One of my colleagues took an emergency leave of absence during the first week of the school year. No other counselor was hired, leaving me as the department chairman with two job descriptions to fill. The days had been long and the work unending. I survived only because a retired colleague stepped in to help. The stress at work added to the stress at home. I was exhausted and at the end of my rope.

“It’s time to change your lifestyle,” the doctor told me as my visit ended.

I barely got to the car before the tears started to flow. I called my husband and tried to talk between sobs. “The lower chamber of my heart has thickened; eventually it will lead to congestive heart failure if left untreated.”

After a period of stunned silence, I heard, “We will figure this out together. I’ll help you do whatever we need to do.”

Luckily, we left on vacation the next week. Getting away helped me gain perspective. It took me several days to process the diagnosis. Playing on the beach together as a family reminded me that life is beautiful and worth the fight. My young adult daughters were as supportive as their dad. I knew I needed to make changes in my life. I wanted to be around for grandchildren and great-grandchildren. My husband and I had things to do and places to go! I trusted God had future plans for me. I knew the road ahead was not going to be easy. I promised my family and myself that I would be healthy, active, and alive for as long as possible.

With that promise in mind, I made an action plan. I gathered information from the Internet, from books, and from health magazines. I began to attack the problem from several different angles. My heart health was only one issue. The other big problem was pre-diabetes, or insulin resistance. There was no easy fix. I took a deep breath and jumped into healthier living.

First I focused on the physical issues. With my doctor’s help I began blood pressure medication and a drug for pre-diabetes. I researched several supplements that were good for the heart and insulin resistance. I read about removing simple carbohydrates from my diet and changing my meals to include lean proteins, vegetables, and salad. Instead of snacking on muffins and bagels, I stuck to apples, berries, nuts, yogurt, protein bars, and protein shakes. I joined a gym that was located on my drive home. For the first time in my life, I exercised daily. Instead of thinking, “Am I going to the gym today?” I began to think, “What time am I going to the gym today?” At the gym, I walked on the treadmill. I planned my walk for a time when a TV show I liked was on. At first, I clung to the bar on the treadmill. But before long, I was swinging my arms and challenging myself to increase the speed and incline. After a few months, I could run for thirty-second intervals between periods of walking.

While I implemented a plan to recover my physical health, I also focused on improving my mental and emotional well-being. I spent time with colleagues and friends who were supportive and positive. Their words of encouragement were almost as satisfying as a doughnut — and without the sugar! I read every health article and magazine I could find. I made an effort to slow down the pace of my life. I cut my hours at work and I took Fridays off each week. I worked hard Monday through Thursday, but slept longer Friday through Sunday. My body responded positively to more sleep three days a week. I spent time taking walks with my dog and watering the plants on the patio. As I took the time to slow down, tend to the flowers, and throw the dog’s ball, my stress level dropped. I felt my body and mind recovering and healing. I pictured my new future, healthy and happy.

The last piece of my healing fell into place when I joined a support group of women who were working on their personal healing. With their support and the love of God, I began to understand how I arrived at this unhealthy place.

The healing in my life didn’t happen overnight. The process took over a year and will be a life focus. When another ultrasound was ordered eighteen months later, it showed a healthy heart — a complete turnaround! I lost over forty pounds and no longer needed the blood pressure medicine. Heart health and balanced sugar are something I will fight for all of my days. This healthier lifestyle is not easy, but I know that following the plan is non-negotiable.

The day I received the results of the healthy ultrasound, I called my husband and kids. “My heart is normal. I’m well!”

“Wow! That is great news! We’ll help you keep it going,” they all promised.

With heart-filled gratitude, I responded, “I promise to do my part, too. Cross my heart.”

~Gwyn Schneck

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