Symptoms strike 'healthy' patient out of the blue

Kim Heath, a 46-year-old mother of two girls and an administrative assistant at Dixon Hughes Goodman, developed heart problems in late May.

Kim Heath doesn't look like someone struggling with heart disease.

At 46, the Mount Pleasant woman is petite, doesn't smoke, eats a relatively healthy diet, exercises moderately and says she didn't have excessive stress in her life. But her family history of heart disease, with both strokes and fatal heart attacks by multiple members, may have kicked in this past summer.

In late May, she developed a cough whenever she lay down. Days later, the cough not only got worse, but she noticed her pulse rate and blood pressure were starting to get high. She started getting winded going up stairs. She later developed numbness and pain between her shoulders and jaw pain.

On June 7, the symptoms came to a crescendo.

"I was walking up those stairs (at work), and I got to the top and thought, 'Oh, my gosh, I'm going to faint,' " recalls Heath, an administrative assistant at Dixon Hughes Goodman in Charleston. "I was completely winded and felt weird. I could hear my pulse beating in my ears. Something was going on."

When she met with a colleague and told her what was happening, the co-worker called 911. When emergency crews took her vital signs, they described her blood pressure and pulse rate as "cookin'."

"In the ambulance on my way to the ER, all I was thinking was, 'I'm not ready to go. I want to live, I want to be here and take care of myself.' ... I was scared."

And yet, after being checked over by an emergency room doctor at a local hospital and telling him of her family history, she was told to watch her caffeine intake and "maybe see a cardiologist sometime soon."

"This is what I was told: 'Look at you. You're healthy. You don't smoke. You exercise. You're petite. You're fine,' " recalls Heath, adding that she told the doctor she felt far from fine.

Subsequent visits with two different cardiologists and her family doctor didn't yield much more information other than a diagnosis of tachycardia, or an unusual high heart rate, and tests revealing high levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) and tryglycerides.

Before going on cholesterol medications, Heath is trying to lower those levels with a low-carb, low-fat diet and is exercising as much as she can, though her racing heart often leaves her fatigued for days after riding her bike for 45 minutes.

Even though Heath still is having issues and remains frustrated with the lack of definitive answers, she is among the newest devotees to heart health.

"My favorite color used to be pink. Now it's red," says Heath of the American Heart Association's official color for its campaigns.

Heath will be among the thousands in the local chapter's Heart Walk on Saturday. And though she's not sure she can walk the three miles, she's determined to try, and spread all the messages of heart health from eating healthy and exercising to knowing your family history and being an advocate for your personal health.

"Don't ever say it can't happen to me," says Heath. "To look at me on the outside, ... who the heck knew what was going on inside with cholesterol, triglycerides and LDLs. Everyone needs to be aware. Get physicals, have your blood checked. You can look one way on the outside and be totally different on the inside."