Do you think coping with heart failure has been easy for me because was I born thin and with incredible discipline? Think again…
When people initially learn that I have heart failure, reactions are all across the spectrum. Two of the most interesting reactions I encounter are based on misunderstandings of my Type A nature and my avid fitness habits, and how they evolved.
So the first reaction is that I am living proof that it is useless to try to follow a health lifestyle. I can see people thinking – “Geez, if heart failure could happen to someone like Melanie, then what good were all of her efforts. She might as well have eaten and drank anything she wanted while she sat around watching television.” Wrong! Every piece of medical advice I have seen or heard on heart failure preaches eating carefully and getting as much exercise as you can tolerate. So I will always feel that I am fortunate that my fitness and diet disciplines were in place to help me hit the ground running when I was unwillingly recruited for the battle against heart failure.
Then there are the people who seem to think – “Yeah, what a shame that she has to deal with this. But it looks like she came out of the womb eating energy bars and yogurt and wearing running shoes. So this really is just an inconvenience for her. By nature, she has incredible discipline and persistence that will allow her to rise above the impact of heart failure.”
Well again, the fact that I did follow such a healthy regimen in the 30 or so years before my heart went south is a good thing. But by no stretch of the imagination did exercise and diet come naturally to me throughout my entire life. What you see today is the Melanie who emerged after the age of 21. The Melanie who existed prior to age 21 was so very different.
First, I was not an overachieving student. My grades in high school were okay, but I was not at the top of the class, nor was I in the National Honor Society. Looking back on my high school years, I realize that I did not apply myself as much as I could have. I had so much more potential. I think a good word to describe me in high school would have been lethargic.
Second, there was the exercise factor. Let me correct that. There was no exercise factor. I did not engage in any sports. I wasn’t a runner, I wasn’t a walker, I didn’t play tennis. I suspect that the most exercise I had in a day, absent school gym classes, was to walk to my bus stop. This also probably explains why I really hated being in the marching band, which was a requirement if you wanted to play in the symphonic band. I was a major klutz who could not seem to carry out even the simplest marching routines. I also just did not like the fact that starting two weeks before the beginning of the school year, I had to engage in marching band practice every weekday morning for a few hours. It was exhausting!
Third, my eating habits were appalling. My diet was heavy on beef, fried chicken, and French fries. These items were all heavily salted. I also had a very large sweet tooth. I was the youngest of four children, and when I was in 8th grade, I was the only child left in the house. My father loved to have a treat at night – hot chocolate in the winter and milkshakes in the summer. He would always make extra for me. On Friday night, my mother would go grocery shopping. When she returned, my Father and I would descend upon her like a host of vultures looking for the bag of candy that she always brought home.
I worked at a local variety store starting at the time that I was sixteen. There was an aisle full of penny candy, and there were candies by the register. The policy of the owner was that the workers could eat as much penny candy as they wanted to, no charge. That was probably a great benefit for every other employee but me. I tacked on even more weight to my very small frame.
The term “pleasantly plump” was often used to describe me. Trust me, no female teenager ever wants to have that term applied to her. Was it any surprise that when we went clothes shopping, especially for bathing suits, my Mom would stand outside the dressing room and listen to my sobs as I realized how big I looked in anything I tried on. But did I do anything to increase my exercise or curb my diet. Not just yet…
I had my first summer job with the Federal government when I was 18. I think this is the time in my life where I began to show that I had intellectual potential. My supervisor soon learned that while my pleasantly plump body seemed to move very slowly as I performed my work, I didn’t make a move without thinking it through and planning each step of the project. So there was a lot of discipline lurking beneath the surface, and this discipline helped me to become organized and deliberate in my work performance. My new found work ethic was a blessing. My Federal agency saw the value in keeping me employed in a temporary capacity as a summer/holiday employee throughout my college career and during my first year of my law school career. Just as I blossomed in my job, I also blossomed as a college student (maybe even becoming what was referred to as a grind).
I entered college in the pleasantly plump mode at my highest weight ever. But when I entered my sophomore year, the discipline that ruled my studies seemed to take hold of my body. I began to diet. By Christmas, I had lost about 25 pounds and I was at a good weight and the “pleasantly plump” description no longer applied. Unfortunately, the diet switch seemed to be stuck in the on mode in my head and I became obsessed with losing weight. I never was diagnosed with anorexia. But I went from 140 pounds to 84 pounds and still thought I needed to lose weight. I have to think I was anorexic.
I was fortunate in two respects. By the time I reached 84 pounds, it was time to go home for the summer break. My family and my co-workers at my summer job were shocked to see how painfully thin I was. They were instrumental in getting me to somehow understand that I had an eating disorder. They were patient but firm in their approach that I needed to gain weight.
When I returned to school, my roommate and friends also helped me to find my way back to a more normal diet. It was not easy, but I was able over the next few years to leave the eating order behind me for the most part. I still remained very conscious about what I ate. But this time, I began to apply my discipline in a different way. Instead of focusing on calories, I focused on finding the foods that were healthy but would strengthen my body with good fuel.
I started to feel a lot better about myself as I returned to a healthy weight. But there was still a fear that I would return to the pleasantly plump version of Melanie. But then something dawned on me. When I was anorexic I didn’t eat a lot, but I also didn’t exercise much. So I decided what I needed to do was continue to eat a healthy and sufficient diet, but to supplement it with cardio exercise. That way, as my weight continued to increase to a normal range, I knew that the exercise would help it go to the right places on my frame.
So I applied my discipline to making sure that I got a good amount of exercise each week. At first, I did it by taking aerobics classes, walking and taking a dance class. Eventually when my work schedule elongated, I began to go to a gym in the area of my office so that I could easily fit exercise in. Eventually I began some running outside as well, and even started to run in some 8K and 10K races. It was a good stress reducer, and I relied on exercise more and more as I took on more challenging managerial positions in my agency. Then the balance shifted and it seemed that all I did was run – either on the job or in the gym. I’m not sure but so much exercise when I was so overloaded at work might have contributed to the stress.
Even though I became a fitness freak, I do think that the exercise was a Godsend in terms of building up my stamina. When heart problems eventually surfaced, my commitment to exercise, even though at a lesser rate, was critical to keeping my heart from slipping further. But my ability to adapt is also useful.
What I have learned as I have traveled with heart failure is that I need to vary the exercise so that it is not just cardio. I need to do some core work, yoga and Pilates to strengthen my muscles and connective tissues. I don’t think there is any scientific data to back this up, but I feel that as I have varied my exercise routine, the strength that I am gaining helps increase my cardio stamina. I hope this in turn helps my heart.
So to recap, as you can see, I was not drinking power shakes and running 8 K races when I was 5 years old. Exercise and a good diet were not a priority for about 1/3 of my life. I learned to apply discipline and reinvent my life a number of times (when I initially lost weight, when I pulled myself out of anorexia, when I toned my post-anorexia body, and when I started to challenge heart failure).
To all those who want to reinvent their diet and exercise around, I can tell you that while it is not easy, but it is definitely worth the effort! Why? Because it helps to have a strong health foundation in place when chronic conditions start trolling for new bodies to invade. You may not be able to stop the invasion, but you can definitely lessen the damage caused by the invader.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. She spent the next 7 years learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth. Then in October 2020, she received a heart transplant. This blog is about her journey of the heart.