Stories From The Heart

While we’re honored to feature each and every Lady in Red included in this year’s issue, the following women hold a special place. They are survivors. These special Ladies in Red have been personally touched by heart disease or stroke and lived to fight another day…and more importantly, they’ve made it their mission to make sure other women learn from their stories, which they’ve graciously shared with us.

Stories From The Heart

Candace Martinez

When you meet 31-year-old Candace Martinez—happily married and a mom to a very active 6-year-old—it is hard to picture the medical odyssey she has traveled.

Candace Martinez
Candace Martinez

After her birth in 1984, she had a purple tone which the doctors believed was bruising from a “hard birth.” The odd coloring went away and when the pediatrician came in to see her at the hospital, she didn’t find anything unusual. When she was taken in for a 4-week checkup, however, her doctor discovered a heart murmur. After running an echo, an EKG, and a chest x-ray, her parents were told to take her immediately to UCLA Medical Center. That was the first of many visits that would save her life.

It turned out Candace was born with a congenital heart defect known as Transposition of the Great Arteries (TGA). This rare heart defect simply means that the two main arteries in her heart were reversed, which left her blood with very little oxygen. She needed open heart surgery.

Except for abstaining from sports, which was difficult, all remained well until she began getting sick during her junior year of high school, in 2002. It started with pain in her upper arm, then her stomach began hurting and she was really tired and out of breath. When her pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Guy Shaw, examined her, he immediately called an ambulance. She was in heart failure and her heart was in an atrial flutter. This would turn out to be another visit to UCLA that would save her life.

After returning home, she was often tired. She didn’t return to school that year and she slept much more than usual. Fifteen months after her atrial flutter episode, she was back at UCLA to have a pacemaker installed which greatly improved her condition.

Years later, in December 2011, she returned to UCLA to have her pacemaker replaced since the batteries were getting low. At that time, Candace was 27 years old, married, and with a child. As you can imagine, it was challenging to have to slow down when she had so much to focus on at home.

Just a little while later, while having stress tests, Candace was met with more with alarming results, so she returned to UCLA for her next surgery; the replacement of her pacemaker with a defibrillator/pacemaker.

Growing up with CHD has not always been easy, but Candace is very grateful for all those who have supported her, her family, and medical team in UCLA.

“At this point in my life, I feel blessed to have traveled the road that I’ve been on. I’m happily married, I have a very active daughter, I ride horses and compete in local ranch sorting competitions, I go to the gym on a regular basis, I volunteer at my daughter’s school, and many other things. The events that have taken place in my life have made me the person I am today and I have to say, I’m pretty happy with that.”

Linda and Haley Witt

Linda Witt’s 20-year-old daughter Haley was always a sports enthusiast. From the time she was little, basketball, softball, and volleyball were all on the list of activities, but soccer was her favorite. By age 10, she was a devoted team member and committed to her roles as midfield and forward. Nothing slowed her down, until she went in for her high school physical exam. That’s when she was told something was wrong with her heart.

Haley and Linda Witt
Haley and Linda Witt

Like many employees of small businesses, Linda worked for a law office whose basic insurance plan only covered her, so she had to scramble to find a way to get her daughter the treatment she needed. Thankfully, her boss came through in a big way: by connecting Linda with a cardiologist buddy of his, who agreed to take on Haley’s case pro bono until the family could get insurance. Haley’s doctor conducted a battery of tests, which showed that Haley had a mitral valve prolapse, a condition in which the two flaps of the heart’s mitral valve do not close smoothly or evenly. This can cause heart palpitations.

The doctor’s recommendation was that Haley refrain from participating in sports. This time it was Haley who had to scramble. “I was in shock,” she remembered. “My life revolved around sports. It’s what made me happy. Stopping was not an option.” Her cardiologist didn’t really understand why Haley was determined to participate in activities that endangered her heart but Haley convinced him to work with her to find a middle ground.

Together they negotiated a moderate plan. After Haley tried water polo for a year, she was allowed to return to her beloved soccer if she confined her participation to the winter months. With the help of her coach, she switched her position to goal keeper so she wouldn’t have to run up and down the field. She and her coach worked hard to retrain her in her new role and she excelled at it. She still had to monitor herself and, if she found that she was having a hard time breathing or felt dizzy, she stepped out of the game immediately. During her junior year of high school, the team won the Valley Soccer Championship and in her senior year she was invited to Humboldt State University on a partial scholarship.

More tears came for Haley, though. This time to her anterior cruciate ligament and a meniscus tear in her knee, which put an end to her college soccer goals at the time. Thankfully today, she still plays intramural soccer with her friends at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, where she is a sophomore studying veterinary medicine. Asked what advice she might have for others suffering from heart disease, Haley is true to form, “Although you might have a physical limitation like heart disease, you don’t have to let it dictate what you want to do.”

On July 7, Lisa was nursing her one-month-old son, Simon, when she began to feel nauseated and dizzy. She broke into a cold sweat, but at three in the morning she thought it was simply exhaustion or food poisoning, so she went back to bed and slept…until her toddler, Xavier, woke her at nine a.m. for breakfast.

Janet Bautista

At 21 years old, Janet Bautista had no idea what a stroke was.

She was home from college for spring break when her father noticed one side of her face was drooping and she seemed confused. He took her to the hospital where she tried texting friends, but realized soon afterward that none of her texts had made sense.

Unbeknownst to Janet, she had suffered a stroke. She would later learn that the condition is caused by a disease that affects the arteries leading to and within the brain, and it is the number five cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the United States.

Janet Bautista
Janet Bautista

A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain is either blocked by a clot obstructing the flow of blood to the brain (called an ischemic stroke) or by a blood vessel rupturing and preventing blood flow to the brain (called a hemorrhagic stroke). A TIA (transient ischemic attack), or “mini stroke,” is caused by a temporary clot. When any stroke happens, part of the brain cannot get the blood (and oxygen) it needs, so brain cells die.

Once the doctors realized she had had a stroke, Janet was transferred to San Joaquin Community Hospital. They deduced this because she was having difficulty speaking, exhibiting facial drooping, and could barely move her right arm and leg.

“I thought stroke was like a heart attack, and that it only happened to old people,” said Janet.

Janet arrived to the hospital too late to get tPA, a clot dissolving medication and the gold standard in stroke treatment. If administered within three hours of the onset of the stroke, tPA may improve the chances of recovery. Like Jane, a significant number of stroke victims don’t get to the hospital in time for tPA treatment; this is why it’s so important to identify a stroke immediately. In her case, they were able to pull the clot out performing a thrombectomy. The hospital eventually discovered her stroke was caused by a previously undetected hole in her heart.

After her stroke, Janet remained hospitalized for six days and, except for some minor speech issues, recovered well. An avid soccer player, Janet is now on medication and back in school at Cal State, Bakersfield, where she’s studying child development with the goal of becoming a teacher. Thankfully her episode had a good outcome. Her story is proof that it’s important to pay attention to your heart and vascular system and seek treatment immediately if you suspect stroke or heart problems.

Carrie Herrero

In January of 2015, Carrie Herrero and her husband Al moved from Ventura County to Tehachapi. “That move essentially saved my life,” Carrie said. The 59-year-old insurance district manager suffered from chest pains and light headedness on and off for 10 years. She had her condition investigated twice, in 2008 and then again in November of 2014. Other than her cholesterol being slightly elevated, her results were normal at both visits so it was recommended she watch her diet and exercise regularly, which she did.

Carrie Herrero
Carrie Herrero

When they moved to Tehachapi, they reconnected with friends whose son’s father-in-law had recently undergone bypass surgery as a result of a routine check-up at Bakersfield Heart Hospital. They insisted Carrie and Al make an appointment for a check-up. Carrie, who’d been tested before, was more concerned for Al. He’d been on medication for 15 years to treat his high cholesterol. So, the couple made an appointment. Routine blood tests and interviews were conducted, but this time it was suggested that they take an additional test called a Computerized Tomography or CT scan, which measures the calcium build up in the blood. Al’s test results were normal, but Carrie’s numbers were through the roof.

“I couldn’t believe it, but was relieved my suspicions were finally confirmed,” Carrie remembered. A sub-

sequent angiogram revealed that Carrie’s arteries were partially blocked. She was prescribed medication to control her cholesterol and blood pressure and she will be monitored the rest of her life to ensure she doesn’t require additional treatments. But for now, she is plugging along.

“Sometimes I wonder if women are just not taken seriously,” Carrie said. She is not alone. Women are often underrepresented in research trials, therefore their symptoms, which are not always consistent with those of a classic heart attack, are not always recognized immediately. That’s why it’s important to support the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women program, which encourages women to trust their instincts regarding their heart health. So does Carrie. “I am now a huge advocate for both women and men getting checked out,” she said.

Check back soon for more stories from the heart!

Stories by American Heart Association staff

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