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Sue Chlebek is CardioSmart

A survivor of sudden cardiac arrest, Sue has devoted herself to making necessary lifestyle changes and leading a support group for women with heart disease.

Sue is a WomenHeart Champion and has led a support group for women with or at risk for heart disease since 2012.
Sue spreads heart disease awareness by regularly talking to and sharing her experience with other patients. Her cardiologist, Dr. Rishi Sukhija (right), regularly joins her. Also seen in this photo is Sue's hair dyed red--something she does every February for Heart Month.  

I decided early on that my heart disease would not destroy me; it is going to strengthen me and make me a better, stronger person.

Sue Chlebek: Heart Attack patient

What is your CardioSmart story?

For most of my life, I thought breast cancer was my No. 1 health risk and that heart disease was something that happened to people that were 70 or 80. That all changed on March 31, 2010. That morning, I dropped off my youngest two children at school. (My youngest daughter was in kindergarten and had just had her sixth birthday and my son was 12. My oldest daughter was a student at Butler University.) After dropping them off, I picked up my friend, and we went for our usual 3-mile walk. During our walk, I felt a little short of breath. However, I just thought I was talking more than usual! On the drive home from that walk, I had chest pain. I thought nothing of it. I arrived home, let the dogs out and changed out of my exercise clothes. I felt another pain. I decided to go on the Internet and look up "chest pain." I immediately found heart attack information.

My chest pains seemed unusual, but it didn't seem possible that I could be having a heart attack. After all, I was a non-smoker, walked a couple times a week, thought I ate fairly healthy, and carried only about 10-15 extra pounds. I sat down, hoping they would go away. I felt another pain, and went back to the Internet to look at symptoms again. Once again, I thought, "this can't be me, I'm too young." I went and sat down again and took a few deep breaths, hoping once again that they would stop. I had another pain, and decided to drive myself to the ER. I left my purse at home, thinking I would just tell them who I was when I got there. I briefly thought about calling 911, but decided that by the time the ambulance got to my house, I could already be at the hospital. I took off for the hospital and called my husband on the way. I told him I was driving to the ER because I was having chest pain, but I probably shouldn't bother, as I didn't want to feel dumb for running there for no reason and after all, I had a lot to do! He encouraged me to go ahead and go. I was one block from the hospital, sitting at a red light, when I had another chest pain. At this point, I started feeling a sense of urgency. I looked both ways, and since nothing was coming, I decided to run the red light. I then parked right in front of the ER doors and walked in and said, "I think I'm having a heart attack."

The nurse put me in a wheelchair and asked why I thought that. I didn't answer her. She looked at my unresponsive body and called a code blue. Seconds after arriving at the ER, I had suffered sudden cardiac death. I was defibrillated with one shock to the heart by Dr. Michael Painter. I am forever grateful to him and we share a very special bond! I am the second person that Dr. Painter saved from sudden cardiac death! I remember nothing from my time in the ER. After I was brought back to life, the first thing I remember is my cardiologist, Dr. Rishi Sukhija, saying, "Susan, Susan, open your eyes!" I was in pain and remember thinking, "Am I dying or having a really bad dream?" I was trying to move but couldn't, as I had been put into a temporary paralysis, and trying to scream but I couldn't as I was intubated. Soon after I was brought back, Dr. Sukhija put a stent in my left anterior descending artery, which was more than 95% blocked. Next, Dr. Sukhija implanted a balloon pump in my artery to help my heart pump. During the three days I had the pump in, I stayed flat on my back and was not allowed to move my left leg. I spent one week in cardiac ICU.

Soon after getting out of the hospital, I started cardiac rehab. They helped me change my life by encouraging me to push myself and start running, something I had never done. I had never even been on a treadmill before cardiac rehab. When they encouraged me to start jogging, I chuckled and said that I couldn't jog; I hadn't run since I was a child! Regardless, I was soon jogging! I ran my first 5K on Thanksgiving Day 2010 and have been in a 5K every Thanksgiving since. My neighbor told me a quote from one of his running books, "Today, races are celebrations. They are the expression of hope and joy and overcoming." And that is how I look at running, overcoming heart disease, hope for the future, and joy in being alive!

Through diet and exercise and the help and support I received, I lost 25 pounds and went from a size 10 to a size 4. I cut my cholesterol in half from a precious high of 240 to 120. My blood pressure now averages 100/60. In October of 2011, I was chosen by WomenHeart to attend training held at Mayo Clinic to learn more about heart disease and how to run a support group for women with heart disease. Each month since Feb. 2012, I have led my support group and have scheduled speakers that will help women live healthier lives. Sudden cardiac death is the leading cause of death in the United States. It claims one person every minute and is the leading cause of death in America. It is estimated that fewer than 5% of people who experience sudden cardiac death survive. What a blessing it is to enjoy and live life to the fullest and I hope that through my story, I can encourage and help others to live better, healthier lives!

How do you work with your doctors and care team to stay on top of your heart condition?

I work with my cardiologist and others by staying up to date and informed about heart disease.  I listen and take their advice and do everything I can to be heart healthy. I take my meds, eat right, and exercise. I trained at Mayo Clinic to become a WomenHeart Champion and Support Network Coordinator and have been leading a support group for women with or at risk of heart disease since 2012. This group helps me as much as the women attending, as I am always learning more about heart disease and how to live a more heart-healthy life.

What lifestyle changes did you make to improve your heart health?

Through the help of cardiac rehab, I started running for the first time in my life. After my heart attack, I was afraid to even walk to the mailbox. Cardiac rehab helped me regain the confidence I needed to exercise. I have exercised at least five days a week every week since my heart attack. I made drastic changes in my diet. I limit my saturated fat, sodium, and sugar and totally avoid trans fat. I lost 25 pounds, cut my cholesterol in half, and lowered my blood pressure to the point that I no longer need blood pressure medication.

What challenges do you face? How are you able to overcome them?

One challenge I faced soon after my heart attack was depression. I read a statistic that of the women who survive a heart attack, only 50% of them survive a year. I started crying uncontrollably and thought I wasn't going to be here to raise my kids. My cardiologist assured me that many of those do not make necessary lifestyle changes and I decided then that I was going to do everything in my power to be there for my kids. I made those changes and have beaten the odds! I will be a 5-year survivor this coming March!

Who is your support system?

My support system is amazing! My family has changed the way they eat. My husband cooks heart-healthy meals. My 10-year-old, Sophie, reads food labels! Dr. Sukhija is always helping and supporting me in every way he can. He urged me to start a support group so I can help others live a more heart-healthy life. Together, we give talks on heart health. Cardiac rehab changed my life by starting me on a great exercise program. In 2011, I was named the Indiana Queen of Hearts through the efforts I made in cardiac rehab.

Do you have a personal motto? What inspires you?

When something bad happens, you can either let it destroy you or let it strengthen you. I decided early on that my heart disease would not destroy me; it is going to strengthen me and make me a better, stronger person. I will not just be a survivor, but also a thriver. I will be here for my kids. I am going to live younger, longer by making healthy choices always. Spreading heart disease awareness inspires me. It is my passion and I want to help others avoid heart disease and help those living with heart disease live healthier lives.

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