Heart Failure: What I Wish I’d Known

By Kim Lewis, as told to Stephanie Watson

As a single mom, I did a lot of juggling. I had an active son and a job at a health and sports facility. I was busy. Making time for doctor appointments and taking care of myself weren’t high on my list. I learned the hard way how important it is to be proactive about my own health.

Just over 20 years ago, when I was 32, I got a cough that wouldn’t go away. I was having so much trouble breathing that I had to sleep upright in a recliner to get enough air into my lungs.

I kept going back to my doctor and telling him the cough wasn’t improving and I couldn’t breathe. He diagnosed me with all kinds of things — pneumonia, walking pneumonia, bronchitis. Finally, after the third or fourth visit, I told my doctor, “I think I need to see a lung specialist.”

The lung specialist immediately sent me to a hospital, where I fell into a coma. When I came out of it 3 days later, my doctors told me that I had inflammation of my heart muscle called myocarditis, which was caused by a virus. I was in heart failure.

A Scary Prognosis

The doctors told me I had 5 years to live. My son was 12 years old at the time. That meant I wouldn’t get to see him graduate from high school. It was horrifying to think about. He’s my whole world.

My son was my baby boy, but he had to grow up quickly. I was so sick that I needed him to take care of me. By the time he was 15, he had to drive me to the hospital if I got sick in the middle of the night. If my port came out, he would call the doctor and say, “Tell me what to do.” My heart failure put a lot of pressure on him.

Turning My Health Around

I knew I had to make drastic changes if I was going to get more time with my son. I started eating healthy. There was no more going to fast food windows for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I was sitting down to heart-healthy meals. Instead of keeping snack cakes and candy bars on my countertop, I have bananas, apples, and oranges. I stock my fridge with bottles of water, not soda.

Exercise also became a priority. Rather than watching TV in the evening, I go for a walk. I teach a water fitness class 3 days a week and I play with my grandchildren to stay active. I make sure that I exercise and see my doctors. And I take a guideline-recommended heart failure treatment to help my heart pump blood more effectively.

I have these really amazing doctors who monitor me closely and take good care of me. They say I’m nothing short of a miracle. They don’t have an explanation for how much I’m able to do, but they think it’s a combination of healthy living, good medication, and weight loss.

What I Would Have Done Differently

If I could talk to my former self, I would tell her that she needs to take better care of her body. I can look back now and say I probably should have gone to the doctor more often. I should have been more physically active. And I should have had a salad with my slice of pizza instead of eating three slices of pizza.

I also should have asked for a second opinion when my doctor wrote off my symptoms. Had the doctors caught my heart failure sooner, I might not have had permanent damage. There’s a fine line between trusting your doctor and trusting your gut. If you’re not comfortable with what your doctor tells you, it’s OK to get a second opinion.

If I had it do over again, I definitely would have prioritized my health. I’ve met a lot of other heart failure survivors who also put their health on the back burner while they took care of everything else. I should have put my health on the front burner and taken care of me.

A New Outlook on Life

Coming so close to death made me appreciate life more. I appreciate the holidays, dinner with friends, sunrises and sunsets, and the sound of rain. I appreciate family gatherings. I have a very large family here in Tennessee. We get together about four times a year. I’m tickled every time I get to see them.

I feel like life is more precious now. I know that I was given a second chance. After being told that I had 5 years to live, I’ve made it more than 20 years. Every day is a gift.