By Katherine Romano, as told to Hallie Levine
Let’s face it, a diagnosis of heart failure is hard. But it’s even harder to navigate during a global pandemic. I speak from experience: I was diagnosed with heart failure in October 2020, right after I had a massive heart attack. As a nurse, I knew how to take care of others. But I found it harder to take care of myself. Here are three things I’ve learned about life with heart failure in a post-quarantine world.
Don’t Delay Medical Care
I began to have classic heart attack symptoms while I was cleaning my house — agonizing upper back pain that radiated to my left arm, nausea, and shortness of breath. I was hesitant to go to the emergency room during the pandemic. But as soon as I got there, I realized I’d made the right decision. I was dizzy, vomiting, and everything hurt from waist up.
The doctors told me that I was having a massive heart attack, but I didn’t believe them. I was young, only 63, with normal cholesterol and blood pressure, and no family history of heart disease. When they wheeled me in a stretcher to the catherization lab for two stents, I was more worried about the fact that my mask had fallen off and I couldn’t find it (they ended up covering my face with a sheet).
That’s not to say being in a hospital during the pandemic wasn’t scary. It was. A few days later, I was diagnosed with heart failure due to damage from the heart attack. Here I was, in the ICU, grappling with my new diagnosis while hearing the sounds of ventilators all around me.
I was transferred to a heart center about an hour away, where I stayed for a few weeks. I wanted the support of my family and friends, but the visiting rules were so restricted because of COVID-19 I told them to just stay home. It was hard and scary doing it alone, but somehow, I did it.
Once I was discharged from the hospital, I went through a 12-week cardiac rehabilitation program. Once again, it was scary to be doing this during COVID, but I kept reminding myself that the center had taken all necessary safety precautions, including wiping down machines after each use and requiring masks. Sure, there was some risk involved, but I knew that if I did the cardiac rehab, I’d be much less likely to end up in the hospital again.
Become Active — Again
During the pandemic, my exercise routine fell by the wayside. I no longer went to my twice-a-week Zumba class in person, and I just didn’t feel motivated to try it online. Let’s just say the diagnosis of my heart failure was the kick in the butt I needed to get restarted.
Unfortunately, heart failure makes you tired. You get short of breath easily, and activities that you once enjoyed, like walking, seem very hard. As a result, it’s very easy to waste away and become depressed. I forced myself to walk outside twice a week and to return to in-person Zumba.
But there are so many people with heart failure now who aren’t getting any activity at all. You don’t think about the exercise when you walk around the mall, for example. But now, since the pandemic changed the way we all live, people aren’t doing that anymore: They order things online, or go into a store for exactly what they need, then leave.
Put Yourself First
While this is a rule that applies all the time, it’s become even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic. For years, I’d been the caretaker of my husband, Ted, after he had a major heart attack in 2011. For the next 6 years, I focused only on him, and let things like doctor’s appointments fall by the wayside. The big joke was we’d go on a family vacation and I’d remember all of his medications, but forget my own underwear.
After his death, I began to take care of myself again and caught up on all the medical visits and tests I’d put off for so long, like a mammogram andv a colonoscopy. Still, during the pandemic, I let myself become isolated. I limited my interactions with my children and grandchildren, as the kids still saw their friends, and I’d stopped doing activities I’d enjoyed, like going out to dinner or going to concerts.
We know so much now about how social isolation is bad for the heart. I try my best now to stay connected with people. I still don’t socialize in large groups, but I see my family as much as I can. I now never miss my grandson’s outdoor baseball games, for example. I also make sure I video chat with close friends regularly. That human contact is so invaluable to our hearts.