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Sue Thomas is CardioSmart

Sue was diagnosed with hypertension in her 20s and lost her father to a heart attack. After her own heart attack, she took control of her lifestyle, since genetics were something she couldn't control.

Sue was diagnosed with high blood pressure in her 20s and has a family history of heart disease. After suffering a heart attack, she was determined to take control of her lifestyle since genetics were something she couldn't control.

Today, Sue eats a plant-based diet, keeps stress at bay and spends time helping others with heart disease through her voluntary project, Heart Hungry.

The reality of what had happened to me was sinking in fast, and I knew that I had to take control of my health.

Sue Thomas: High Blood Pressure patient

What is your CardioSmart story?

My family history of heart disease and early death should have been enough of a mental intervention to supersede any feeling of immortality that I had. At 53, I was a strong woman—a mother, a wife, and a business owner. I was very fit and an avid exerciser, even though admittedly in the last few years stress was taking its toll and I had let some pounds pile on while slacking on my exercise. I had been diagnosed with high blood pressure in my 20s, but as they say “there’s a pill for that,” and on I went, thinking that my life would continue as usual. My world started to change with a strange feeling in my throat. It felt like something was stuck and I couldn’t swallow it down. For the next 19 hours, as my body was telling me that something was terribly wrong, my mind let fear and denial take over and freeze any intelligent action. From the tightness in my throat, to pressure in my chest, to shortness of breath, to not being able to lie flat, to jaw soreness and a tingling down my left arm, my symptoms continued to mount. It wasn’t until I felt an excruciating burning pain in my chest that I decided that, “yes, this was happening to me,” and I should go to the hospital.

I now don’t let a minute go by without being thankful that I survived a nearly fatal heart attack. My LAD artery (the widow maker) had two blockages; one at 99% and one at 80%. Four days in ICU and two stents later, I was sent home. While still in the hospital, the reality of what had happened to me was sinking in fast, and I knew that I had to take control of my health. I was told that my genetics were an outstanding factor in my heart health, which to me was another strike against me that perhaps others in my situation didn’t have. It wasn’t something I could control. But what I could control was my lifestyle. My second chance at life was gifted with an enormous sense of empowerment, neither of which I will ever take for granted again. The advice I got in the hospital on nutrition was to cut my sodium intake and to cut out the mayo and French fries. Ok, I could do that, but with my genetics I felt I had to do more to save me from being one of the 23% of women who don’t make it within a year of having a heart attack.

I also had the personal implantation of watching my father die of his second heart attack within his first year, which was a huge driver in my mission to live. I dove into researching everything I could find about heart health and nutrition. By the time I had my first follow-up visit to my cardiologist, I had committed to eating a plant-based diet, which consisted of vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. I cut out all meat (except for a piece of salmon twice a month), all dairy, eggs, oil and processed foods. My doctors were a bit shocked but very pleased with my commitment and especially pleased with my weight loss. One month after my heart attack, I began suffering from shortness of breath, extreme exhaustion and terrible chest pain. I would notice a pattern of these symptoms coming just hours after my exertion in cardiac rehab. After much testing—which all came back normal—it was decided I should have another angiogram to make sure that there were no other major blockages and that my stents were still open. My doctor decided to stent a 50% blockage in the mid diagonal artery, which had been noticed in the first angiogram but thought too minor to cause me any problem. Everything else looked great. Unfortunately, the symptoms still persisted, and three months later, I was diagnosed with coronary microvascular disease.

The heart’s microvessels assist blood and oxygen transportation that our hearts require when placed under the extra burden of exercise or stress. Our vessels are lined with endothelial cells which produce nitric oxide to open them when needed. Because of my endothelial dysfunction, the microvessels were not opening, thus causing the pain, exhaustion and shortness of breath. I began to make sense of why I was having such a hard time jumping back into life, let alone jumping at all. I knew that my plant-based eating was helping to reverse my coronary artery disease, but after more research, I learned it was also helping to heal my endothelial cells. I believe I am also reversing my microvascular disease, as I continue to get better, not worse as predicted. The way I now live my life to the fullest is to first accept responsibility for my health. My heart was ailing, and even though some of that was not in my control, there was a lot that is. Taking control of how I feed my body, managing stress, and maintaining a positive attitude are huge.

I might not be able to live the exact life I had before, but I have been given the opportunity to make a different one, a better one. I have readjusted my goals and my mental energy and now spend time helping others with heart disease with my voluntary project called Heart Hungry. Through talking to others via online heart support groups, doctors and insurance case workers, I learned that many people who suffer from heart disease don’t have the time, energy, resources or willpower to take control of what they can. For two years now, I have been gathering information focused on plant-based nutrition and heart disease, collecting and trying recipes, and sharing it all on my Heart Hungry social media pages. Knowing that I might be helping someone with this information does my heart good. One beat at a time!

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

I keep a record of any (doctor approved) supplements I take in addition to my medications. I keep a journal of how I'm feeling, i.e. energy levels, activity levels, so that we can keep track of exercise progress. This also helps in tweaking any medications if the doctors see fit.

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

Changed to a plant-based diet, reduced stress, learned how to manage stress, reduced alcohol consumption, made sure to get enough sleep, keep myself calm, and don't let "little things" bother me. I have learned to manage time and daily events to my advantage. I am also starting yoga.

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

My biggest challenge is to be able to maintain an increased heart rate for a long period of time without having it cause angina from the coronary microvascular disease. Sustained exercise (like walking long distances) is a building process for me, but I work at it constantly. Through my plant-based eating, I hope to further heal my endothelial cells to improve my exercise efforts.

Who is your support system?

My husband is my No. 1 supporter. He eats a plant-based diet with me, goes through all the recipe testing with me, tells me when to slow down and rest. Most of all, he still loves the "new" me! He and my entire family encourage and support my new lifestyle.

Do you have a personal motto? What inspires you?

I love this quote from Pema Chodron: "When there is a great disappointment, we don't know if that's the end of the story. It may be just the beginning of a great adventure." This inspires me to stay positive and focus on the fact that my life may have changed, but it is up to me to make that change a great one.

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