Rhonda Laing was in the front end of her 40s in 2016. She was at a healthy weight. She exercised.
None of which checked the standard boxes for someone whose heart might be in serious peril.
“I thought I was pretty safe,” said Laing, a senior community relations consultant at Capital Blue Cross. “I knew there was always a possibility, but I definitely fell into that category of not really thinking I’d have heart issues.”
But hers is a cautionary tale. Because within two years, Laing would undergo two surgeries to handle three separate heart problems.
As February’s American Heart Month approaches, her story serves as a reminder for everyone to heed their cardiovascular health, something statistics say too few Americans are doing.
Out of rhythm
Six years ago, Laing began having occasional bouts of weakness, and often felt faint. She went to her doctor, who ordered an EKG that showed unusually low heart rhythms.
The diagnosis was a form of arrhythmia – irregular heart beat – that required immediate surgery to install a pacemaker.
“When this all started happening, I didn’t feel good, but never really thought it might be something serious,” Laing said. “I was so young.”
Her thoughts turned to her then 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.
“What would happen to them if something happens to me?” Laing worried.
What happened weeks after the pacemaker surgery hardly quieted her concerns. Laing felt severe chest pains, and her doctors diagnosed a heart disease called pericarditis, which swells the heart lining. Months later, after numerous tests and appointments, doctors also found an autoimmune disease at the heart of her heart issues.
“This can happen to anyone,” Laing said.
Undiscriminating, costly killer
Heart disease is still the United States’ most deadly condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), even with the many medical advances over the years. Every 36 seconds, cardiovascular disease kills one person in the U.S., the CDC says. That’s nearly 660,000 deaths a year.
It all produces an enormous price tag. In 2016 and again in 2017, according to the American Heart Association, heart disease cost the U.S. about $363 billion – for healthcare services, medication, and lost productivity.
Employers can help employees fend off heart disease by focusing on educational campaigns that encourage preventive and proactive treatment, and by offering healthcare plans with quality heart-care coverage.
Capital Blue Cross helps its covered employer groups protect their employees by providing resources including:
- Access to the EMPOWER weight management program, designed to improve diets and increase physical activity.
- Strategies to manage stress through Balance, a mindfulness and stress management program.
- Consultations with health coaches at Capital Blue Cross Connect health and wellness centers.
- Newsletters, websites, and social media posts that teach about heart risk factors and the importance of preventive care.
- Assistance with complex cardiac medical needs through care-management services. Capital provides licensed nurses and social workers to create personalized care-management plans that help members slow the progression of chronic conditions, avoid complications, and promote medication adherence and physician follow-up care.
Her heartfelt message
Laing’s long trip to heart health remained incomplete. Almost a year after the pericarditis and the autoimmune diagnoses, she began to suffer severe headaches and have frequent palpitations.
In early 2018, and for the second time in a year and a half, she was rushed to the hospital. Surgeons replaced her pacemaker with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, and again diagnosed a serious arrhythmia, this one accelerating her heartbeat to dangerous speeds that put her at risk of sudden cardiac arrest.
The ICD and prescribed medications have since worked; Laing has had no severe episodes since the 2018 surgery.
Her heart odyssey has taught her a vital lesson about self-care, and she wants her children – and anyone else who will listen – to put their heart health atop their life’s priority list.
“Don’t put off addressing something that doesn’t feel right,” Laing said. “You might just think it will be OK, or that you’ll see a doctor later, or that it’s probably heartburn or stress or dehydration. But take action now, because you may not have the luxury of doing it later.”