By Catherine Romano, as told to Haley Levine
Let’s face it, diagnosing heart failure is difficult. But it’s hard to navigate during a global pandemic. Speaking from experience: I was diagnosed with cardiac arrest in October 2020, right after I had a severe heart attack. As a nurse, I knew how to take care of others. But I found it difficult to take care of myself. Here are three things I learned about life with heart failure in a post-quarantine world.
Do not delay medical care
I started experiencing typical heart attack symptoms while cleaning my house – excruciating upper back pain spreading to my left arm, nausea and shortness of breath. I was reluctant to go to the emergency room during the pandemic. But once I got there, I knew I made the right decision. I was dizzy and vomiting and everything hurt from the waist up.
Doctors told me I was having a severe 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 took me on a stretcher to the cathedral lab for two supports, I was more concerned 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 doesn’t mean being in hospital during the pandemic wasn’t scary. she was. A few days later, I was diagnosed with heart failure due to the damage from the heart attack. I was here, in the intensive care unit, struggling with my new diagnosis as I could hear the sounds of ventilators all around me.
I was taken to a heart center about an hour away, where I stayed for a few weeks. I wanted to have the support of my family and friends, but the visiting rules were very restrictive due to COVID-19 and I asked them to stay at home. It was hard and scary to do it alone, but somehow I did it.
Once I was discharged from the hospital, I underwent a 12-week cardiac rehabilitation program. Again, it was intimidating to do 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 ordering masks. Sure, there were some risks involved, but I knew that if I did cardiac rehab, I was unlikely to end up in the hospital again.
Be active – again
During the pandemic, the workout routine has fallen by the wayside. I no longer go to a Zumba class twice a week in person, nor am I excited to try it online. Let’s just say my heart failure diagnosis was a kick in the ass I needed to restart.
Unfortunately, heart failure makes you tired. You get short of breath easily, and activities you used to enjoy, such as walking, seem very difficult. As a result, it is very easy to get lost and depressed. I forced myself to go out twice a week and come back to Zumba in person.
But there are a lot of people who have heart failure now and don’t do any activity at all. Don’t think about exercise when you’re walking around the mall, for example. But now that the pandemic has changed the way we all live, people no longer do that: they order things online, or they go to the store to get exactly what they need, and then they leave.
Put yourself first
While this is a rule that applies all the time, it has become even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic. For years, I was the one in charge of caring for my husband, Ted, after he had a major heart attack in 2011. For the next 6 years, I focused only on him, letting things like doctor appointments overlook the road. The big joke was that we were going on a family vacation and I remembered all his medication, but I forgot my underwear.
After his death, I started taking care of myself again and discovered all the medical visits and tests I had been putting off for so long, like mammograms and colonoscopy. However, during the pandemic, I left myself defenseless. I restricted my interactions with my children and grandchildren, as the kids still saw their friends, and stopped doing activities I used to enjoy, like going out to dinner or going to concerts.
We know a lot now about how bad social isolation can be. I do my best now to keep in touch with people. I still don’t mix in big groups, but I do see my family as often as I can. Now I never miss my grandson’s outdoor baseball games, for example. I also make sure that I video chat with my close friends regularly. This human connection is invaluable to our hearts.