As 2016 came to a close and 2017 unfolded, it seemed like a number of people in my age range were dying, and the causes of death were related to the heart. One person died of cardiac arrest. One person died from “dilated cardiomyopathy with myocarditis and fatty liver.” Another died while having surgery to replace a heart valve.
Let me just clarify for the record that I am not trying to keep track of how many heart--related deaths occur so that I can calculate my own life expectancy. I'm not that obsessive. Furthermore, I do not study the newspaper obituary page each day for deaths, nor do I search the internet for obituaries online. Indeed, I feel it has become my mission to maintain an optimistic state of mind. So religiously studying the obituaries each day to see who has died of conditions similar to mine would be a morbid practice, and would not be a constructive pursuit. However, the deaths that came to my attention were the deaths of celebrities. This meant that the media focused attention on the deaths of these people for a bit of time.
I have noticed media reports of deaths from heart-related issues ever since my initial diagnosis four years ago. But usually the deceased individuals were in their 80's or 90's. It is easier for me to process the fact that someone has passed away from something like congestive heart failure when they are 85 or 90 years old. But when they die from heart-related issues in their 50's or 60's – and I am just about to turn 60! – well that hits too close to home. So I think it is an accurate statement to say that these deaths created a little anxiety, especially since I could not escape news about them. Indeed, there were days when the tv news, the newspaper, and the internet seemed to have non-stop coverage of these deaths.
So my healthy, holiday and post-holiday outlook became a bit skewed when it seemed like all I saw in the media were terms like “cardiac arrest” and “heart failure”. I thought - Wow these people seemed healthy to me and were my age. All of a sudden, they are no longer with us. What chance do I have, especially since I already have heart failure, was at risk for cardiac arrest (hence the defibrillator inside me) and have a leaky heart valve? I mean, if Princess Leia can die of heart issues at a young age, what hope do I, a mere weak commoner have?
Of course, did I do anything to escape the wave of news coverage? Well, the answer to that would be that I did not try to distract myself from reading or hearing the stories. In fact, I contributed to my own delinquency by doing what we all do nowadays. I got on the web and started to google and find all the articles I could about their deaths. Of course, it wasn’t as if the Journal of American Medicine was reporting on their deaths. Instead, it was the usual media outlets: CNN, USA Today, People, etc. But did I remind myself that the reports were not medical synopses of their conditions? Nope - I just read whatever I could find.
But at some point, thank God, I overdosed on coverage and common sense ruled again. So the first thing I reminded myself is that in many cases, reporters are giving us information they are hearing from their sources, which are usually not medical experts (unless of course it is an autopsy summary or a coroner’s report). In that regard, it is important to tell yourself that the people you are hearing from are not providing a medical commentary even though the words heart failure and cardiac arrest are scattered liberally throughout the articles.
The second thing I had to tell myself is that I was guilty of doing the thing that people may do when they look at me: Judging the person’s health by the fact that they looked “normal” to me. Let’s recap here - the people who died were celebrities, so it is not like I knew them personally. It’s not like I saw them running out to get groceries or on the way to see the doctor. My knowledge of their health and well-being was based solely on seeing them in the media, usually at events where they were well-dressed and well-groomed.
So of course, all things considered they looked normal – heck they looked better than normal as we all would probably look when cameras are trained on us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Yes, they looked healthy to me in the media shots. But how many times have people told me that I look healthy and then are shocked to find out I have heart failure? Their looks were not evidence of the symptoms they had or the treatment they might have been under.
The third thing I had to tell myself was that I don’t know what lifestyles they were living. In some cases, there were reports of illegal drug use during their lives. At this point, I would take a moment to thank God that somehow in my life, I blissfully skated right by any opportunities to use illegal drugs. Don’t ask me how I was so fortunate. I just seemed to hang out with a crowd who drank alcohol but never used drugs, even marijuana. I was never interested enough to try to seek it out on my own. I don’t know –I must have a guardian angel. I am just grateful that when I filled out the patient forms at my heart doctors, I never had to say that I used illegal drugs, because drug usage can impact heart issues. At least there was one thing that was not complicating the opportunity to improve my heart health.
The fourth thing I had to tell myself was that I do not know whether they were being treated by heart doctors for heart failure or other cardiac issues. It was probable they were. But I had learned the hard way that the devil was in the details. If they had not been diagnosed, how would they know how to change their lifestyles and diet and exercise routines to account for weakened hearts that were at risk? And even if they had been diagnosed, what were they doing to improve their heart health?
There was no way I would know these details about people I never met. But I knew that not only was I seeing a team of cardiac professionals, I was following their instructions to the letter. So maybe I was more fortunate than these celebrities in terms of the level of care I was receiving and the level of care I apply to myself. I cannot speak for them, but I can confirm that the level of discipline I apply in guarding my heart health is constant.
The reality of the situation is that I cannot control when I will ultimately leave this earth. I can only do my best to push that date as far down the road as possible with the help of many talented medical professionals. I can also do my best to keep my quality of life as high as possible, and to try to remain as active and optimistic as possible.
But as much as I hated being bombarded with news about the death of people my age, there was one important lesson I learned as I began to work my way through these notable and tragic losses. These people who were praised for distinguished careers. While they were no longer with us, they did leave behind a legacy of career accomplishments, some which appear to have been achieved despite their heart issues.
So as much as the deaths scared me, they also made me even more committed to overcome some of the impact of heart failure. I needed to be able to gain back some energy and start focusing on what my legacy should be. So I have made the decision to put my toe back in the water and see what I could do to not only keep my mind active, but to hopefully make a difference to others. It may take me a while to work through this, but give me credit for at least trying – which I think will help my outlook become even more positive.
Perhaps the media reports of these celebrity deaths did the public a service. They reminded us to keep an eye on our health - have annual physicals, brings concerns to your doctor's attention, do the medical tests appropriate for your age group, etc. If you do these things, then you also owe it to yourself to dismiss the unproductive anxieties from your mind. You can only do what is humanly possible. If you have faith, God will take care of the rest.
Oh, but please make sure that you keep your will up-to-date. When you do finally exit this earth, it will be better if you have memorialized where your estate should go rather than relying on the law of the state where you live to make those decisions!
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.