According to the American Heart Association (AHA), “cardiovascular disease is the #1 killer of women causing 1 in 3 deaths each year.” Fortunately for Tara Stermer, a wife, working mother of three adult children, and a Connecticut resident, her story had a different ending. Now fifty-two, she courageously recaps the past five years.
I first interviewed Stermer one year after her heart attack. Five years later, she admits not a day goes by that she isn’t reminded of the importance of being vigilant about her health. Her story is still one of gratitude for the unwavering support of her family and the medical team that saved her. “Since my heart attack, I am hyper-sensitive to how I feel. It’s a new normal, however, I know that every day is a blessing, “states Stermer.
Prior to going into cardiac arrest, Stermer didn’t have common risk factors. Her blood pressure and cholesterol were normal, she’s always been a non-smoker, not diabetic, and no family history of chest pain, heart attack or stroke. She walked regularly and participated occasionally in exercise classes. Stermer didn’t fit the profile of someone that was a candidate for a heart attack. However, now she understands the preeclampsia she had during her pregnancy with her twins can be a precursor for heart disease later in life. According to the AHA, 10-20% of women that have preeclampsia, high blood pressure or gestational diabetes in pregnancy are at greater risk for cardiovascular disease. Additionally, she learned that those with Rheumatoid arthritis, which she has, are more likely to experience a cardiac event.
Following her heart attack, she realized that she did have a few warning signs including heartburn, headaches, and jaw pain she associated with a prior diagnosis of TMJ. She never had any chest pain. Two months prior to her heart attack, she began to experience right shoulder pain and went to urgent care. She says, “I just didn’t feel right.” This did not raise a red flag for heart disease since her blood pressure was normal. She later saw her primary care doctor and was sent for blood work and a gallbladder ultrasound as heartburn and shoulder pain can warning signs of gallbladder disease. She also had an EKG. All tests were normal; however, her triglycerides were not checked in her blood draw because she was not in a high-risk age group.
A few days leading up to her heart attack, she did feel nauseous with flu-like symptoms.
On March 25, 2018, her husband and daughter took her to the emergency room where she went into cardiac arrest. Not what she would have scripted for an early spring morning at the age of 47.
She had two surgeries immediately following her heart attack, went to outpatient cardiac rehabilitation, and continues ongoing visits with her cardiologist. Today her message is the same as four years ago, “Advocate for yourself. If you believe that something doesn’t feel right, don’t dismiss it.”
It has been a long road of recovery which includes a daily cocktail of multiple medications as well as lifestyle changes. She admits that she still gets anxious and experiences night sweats. Other recent health challenges included retinal eye surgery for a macular hole, and Stermer was told that issues of the heart can affect the eyes.
Her story exemplifies grace and strength in recovery. “I said to my husband days after my heart attack that I am grateful and blessed, and I hope to someday share my story,” Stermer said. She is excited to be the guest speaker at AHA’s Go Red For Women Luncheon at the Hartford Convention Center on March 29, 2023.
As she continues monitoring her daily health, the following acronym for GO RED summarizes it best: Get Your numbers, Own your lifestyle, Realize your risk, Educate your family, and Don’t be silent.
If hospitalized for a cardiac event and requiring short-term rehabilitation, National Health Care Associates affiliated skilled nursing centers strive to help individuals become a better, brighter, and stronger version of themselves through an interdisciplinary team approach to care. For more information visit, www.nhca.com.
Column is written by Laura Falt, director of business development in Connecticut. Laura welcomes the opportunity to be a resource to the community on services for older adults and is often featured in local publications.