Health was much on Alicia McDine’s mind in 2008, but it wasn’t her own health she was worried about. Her mother had passed away in January of that year following a long battle with staph infection complications; Alicia had been her full-time caretaker for more than a year.
Alicia was used to pushing aside her own health concerns — some shortness of breath here, a twinge in her chest there — while she coped with her mom’s death. And after that she refocused on her husband Shawn and son Jonathan, then 8. But the self-neglect all came to a head on July 16, 2008, when she suffered a major heart attack at age 39.
“It was just an ordinary day,” Alicia says. “Jonathan and I had spent the day with my dad, and I started having a weird feeling on the left side of my neck.”
The pain wouldn’t recede, even after Alicia had settled into her recliner to relax. At first, it didn’t even occur to her that it could be a heart attack — her father had once described his heart attack as feeling like an elephant was sitting on his chest, and this felt nothing like that. But when she called Shawn, a paramedic, and described her growing symptoms — sweating, chills and pain down her left arm — he told her to get to the hospital immediately.
Within a week, Alicia had triple bypass surgery; then after another scare in the hospital, a follow-up surgery was required. She was also diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. She was in the hospital for more than a month, but as soon as she returned home and was able, she eagerly began cardiac rehabilitation.
“Once you’ve been through such a big ordeal, you’re scared to do anything for fear you might have another heart attack,” Alicia says. “But in rehab, they start you off really slowly, and it gives you confidence.”
It wasn’t easy. After one frustrating session, during which Alicia lamented that she couldn’t do nearly as much as she used to, a nurse told her, “You have to get used to a new normal.” Alicia adopted that as her mantra to keep pushing through her rehabilitation.
That kind of emotional support is a crucial part of cardiac rehab, a process that many people assume is devoted simply to physical recovery.
“I didn’t realize it at first, but I was depressed after my heart attack,” she says. “What affected me most was being so young — at cardiac rehab, it would be me and a room full of senior citizens.”
If embracing a “new normal” was one of the greatest lessons Alicia took from her recovery, equally important was the proactive approach she learned to take to her health. Nearly three years after her heart attack, Alicia continues to takes classes at her local hospital on nutrition and managing her diabetes so she can constantly make changes to her lifestyle. She is diligent about fitting in her 30 minutes a day of exercise, often opting for a workout on the Wii Fit or walks around her neighborhood. Complications from diabetes and her now weakened heart make strenuous exercise difficult, but she works closely with her doctors to make sure she’s doing all she can.
With any luck, Alicia will never again have to go through the intensely stressful caretaking situation doctors believe triggered her heart attack. But as a precaution — and for a better quality of life — she’s taken steps to better manage her stress.
“I used to internalize everything and keep it all in. Now I know if something bothers me, I have to stop and fix it or talk it through,” she says. “And every night I sit down and read the paper for 20 to 30 minutes. That’s my ‘me time,’ and it helps me de-stress.”
“The doctor told me twice that I shouldn’t be here,” she adds. “It makes me more grateful for the time I have, and I want to take advantage of every opportunity.”