Jill Shook was 32 years old, a longtime runner who exercised regularly and a healthy diet when she received a diagnosis she never expected a year ago: coronary artery disease (CHD).
The shock started with her annual check-up, which her doctor found was very high in cholesterol. Shook, a Pittsburgh speech pathologist and business consultant, couldn’t understand what was causing the surge.
She ran a half marathon and other races, did high-intensity workouts, and cooked almost all of her meals. Her cholesterol had been stable and in a healthy range for years. Startled, she went home and did a little research.
Shook had a heart condition stemming from her struggle as a toddler with Kawasaki disease, which inflamed blood vessels throughout her body. It took 10 days to properly diagnose Shook’s disease. When she received treatment, she had developed four bulging aneurysms in her heart.
During her childhood, Shook took aspirin and vitamin E and lived in fear that her aneurysms would burst.
“If one of them had burst, if I hadn’t been on an operating table, I could have died,” she says.
But at the age of 17, Shook’s doctors said the aneurysms were gone and gave her a clean health certificate.
“I thought I was done with it and the danger was over,” says Shook.
While studying the sudden spikes in her cholesterol levels, Shook discovered that some people who had Kawasaki disease as children had coronary artery disease as adults.
“It was a huge shock,” says Shook.
Shook has revamped her diet to make her heart healthier. She cut down on red meat and prepared more meatless dishes for her family. Even so, these changes weren’t enough to lower her cholesterol levels.
The only thing that helped “is the statin,” she says. “Now I’ll be on a statin for the rest of my life.”
Sometimes Shook gets frustrated that she can’t manage her CAD with just exercise and healthy habits. At the same time, she is grateful to have the option of medication.
Taking statins, Shook says, “doesn’t change my lifestyle other than adding another pill to my vitamin routine.”
Medication and CAD
Many people with CHD, like Shook, need to take medications to control their blood pressure and cholesterol levels, or to prevent their heart disease from getting worse, in addition to leading a healthy lifestyle. Medication needs can change over the years, and some people may need more than one medication.
Everyone’s body, lifestyle, and risk factors are different, so your doctors will tailor medications to suit each person’s needs.
Life after cardiac arrest
Kristi Wells, 73, is a retired Washington state educator who has lived with coronary artery disease since 2015. Doctors found a small block in her heart but told her that she was otherwise fine. Wells, who was always active, got on with her life. A few weeks later she suffered cardiac arrest and ended up with two stents in her heart.
“I had a stomach ache, but I thought it was because of the chili I ate,” says Wells. “I remember going into the bathroom feeling like someone was pushing a spoon on the roof of my mouth.”
Instead of calling 911, Wells drove himself to a nearby hospital. Wells was very lucky and managed to arrive safely without endangering himself or anyone on the road. Upon arrival at the hospital, she felt severe pain in her arm and quickly passed out. Women are less likely than men to have chest pain during a heart attack. When Wells left the hospital for cardiac rehabilitation, she was given a bag full of pills.
“I made a deal with my cardiologist. I said, ‘When my numbers are back where they should be, can we get off some of the pills?’ “She says. “He said yes.”
With the encouragement and support of her daughter and her cardiologist, Wells made changes.
First Wells slowly switched her diet to whole foods. She and her daughter switched from cow’s milk to oat or almond milk. They cooked less red meat and tried different vegetarian and vegan recipes. Wells also began to exercise, meditate, and do yoga.
By her six-month check-up, Wells’ cholesterol levels had dropped, and her cardiologist took one drug from her and lowered the dose on the others.
But in 2017, Wells started seeing spots on her right eye. Her doctor found a vein constricting into her retina, a problem usually caused by diabetes or high blood pressure. Wells recently started taking a diuretic to relieve symptoms.
“I understand a lot of people don’t want to take pills, but when you need them, you need them,” says Wells.
“There is life after cardiac arrest, after coronary artery disease,” she says. “You put one foot in front of the other, and if you miss a step, that’s fine. Just go on.”