As Claudia Mercado prepared for bed one night in 2008, she felt pressure and burning in her chest. Thinking it was indigestion, she took an antacid. But it didn’t help.
“It felt like there was a pile of bricks on my chest,” she said. “The tingling radiated through my arms. I never thought about the idea that it could be heart attack.”
The next day, she shared what happened with a friend, who urged her to go to the hospital right away. There, she learned she’d had a heart attack.
“I started crying, ‘It can’t be!’” she said.
Mercado, who was 45, was taken by ambulance to a heart center where catherization revealed a blockage requiring three stents. Accompanied by her husband and kids, Mercado learned about changes she needed to make. Even modest changes to diet and lifestyle can lower cardiovascular risk by as much as 80 percent by moving more, eating smart and managing blood pressure.
Mercado, who was diagnosed with arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, was prescribed medications for high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Because Mercado didn’t have a regular doctor before her heart attack, she was not sure how long those conditions went untreated.
Mercado paid close attention to her blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, and consulted with her cardiologist if something didn’t feel right.
“I’ve learned to listen to my body,” she said.
Even though she was focused on weight loss before her event, the heart attack inspired her to prioritize diet changes and increased physical activity to keep her heart healthy. She eliminated fried food and tried to eat more fruits, vegetables and lean meats. She modified traditional family recipes, swapping ground beef for turkey and serving whole grains such as brown rice and quinoa instead of white rice.
“It was a new reality for the whole family,” she said. “We learned to shop around the perimeter of the grocery store, not the inside aisles where all the sugary and processed foods are.”
On Christmas in 2013, the family was preparing to open gifts when Mercado began feeling pain in her chest again.
“I tried to dismiss the pain, thinking, ‘This can’t be happening again,’ but I couldn’t hide it and my son insisted we go to the hospital,” she said.
It was second heart attack. This time, no stents were required, but her doctor told her stress could be a factor.
Today, Mercado relieves her stress by attending a weekly art group. She shares her artwork with friends and family and recently agreed to create something for her cardiologist’s office. She maintains regular contact with her doctor and takes medication to lower her risks of another cardiovascular event. She also learned that her family history of heart disease increased her risks.
“I was taking care of myself with medicine and diet, but it wasn’t enough,” she said. “I needed to manage my stress and let my body rest.”
Diego is the Communications Director for the American Heart Association in New York City. He loves sharing powerful stories that inspire people to take control of their health.