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AUDIO HERSTORY: Tracey Conway Shares Her “Drop Dead Gorgeous” Heart Disease Story

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Hey ladies, my name is Tracey Conway and I am from Seattle, Wash., up in the northwest corner of our beautiful country and I have a pretty fascinating story, if I do say it so myself. I call it the ‘drop dead gorgeous’ and just so that you don’t think right after that that I’ve got a really swelled head, I know what gorgeous is.

Gorgeous is … Angelina Jolie or well frankly, let’s be honest, gorgeous is George Clooney, but I am at a point in my life now, I have hit the 50-year mark and I have learned to accept that. I have my own unique beauty and I really want you all to embrace that you are -- a special individual, a one-of-a-kind, gorgeous creature and the way to do this, in my opinion, because I know women who are really frequently hard on themselves, is to recognize that you are the heart of your family, you are the women or the heart of the community and I really want you to embrace that your heart is the most important organ in your body. And even a women’s entity concerned with their exterior, a lot of times, and it’s really our inners and especially our heart that we need to fall in love with, and I found this out in a very dramatic way about 13 years ago. My background is that I am an actress and I was on a sketch comedy program. So it’s like “Saturday Night Live” and most of you are familiar with “Saturday Night Live” or “Mad TV” sketch comedy and we did our television program here in the northwest, based in Seattle, in front of a live studio audience. Some of the comedy that we did was taped ahead of time and some of that was live in the studio. And on a January night, 13 years ago, we had just finished taping our half an hour show in front of a live 150-people audience … As we were waving good bye and the camera shut down at the very end of our show, I turned to one of my fellow actors and I said to him, “Boy, I just don’t feel to…”, and then I did this kind of stumbley, boozey boozey and then boom, I hit the floor and I collapsed. The audience cracked up. They laughed really hard because they were at a comedy show and they did not realize that when I fell down, it wasn’t just comedy platform. It was actually that I had gone into sudden cardiac arrest and most people think, “Oh my goodness, so you had a heart attack”. No, I didn’t have a heart attack, I had a problem with the electrical system in my heart and that’s a little bit different from a heart attack but essentially it’s the same thing. What happens when you have sudden cardiac arrest, it means that your heart ceases beating effectively. It goes into a chaotically fast rhythm and it means that no oxygen is being pumped through your body, through your blood to your brain. So that’s why you fall down and collapse. Well, the host of our show turned around and saw me on the floor and he saw that my eyes had rolled back in my head and I had gone gray and he turned to the audience and he said, “We’re not kidding, this isn’t a joke. Does anyone here have medical training? We don’t know what’s wrong with Tracey.” Well, everybody is looking around like well, “What on earth is going on? I thought it was a comedy program”, and finally there wasn’t a doctor or nurse in the audience. This young fellow stood up at the very back of the audience and he said, “Well, I am not a medical professional but I am a volunteer firefighter. She looks like she might be having heart problem”. So they back into him and he ran down and put his finger to my throat and couldn’t get a pulse. I wasn’t breathing and so he shouted, “Call 911”, flipped me over on to my back so that he could start CPR, you know doing the compression on my chest, and this was the reason this young man who came out of the audience, who was willing to step forward and do the CPR, that I am able to have this conversation with you today and tell you my story of heart disease. I was 38-years-old. I was a non-smoker. I did aerobics. I was the poster woman for the operative heart disease. If you looked at me you would never have thought, “Well here’s a woman who’s going to drop dead from a heart problem”, but that’s exactly what happened to me at the age of 38. It turned out I knew that I had an arrhythmia problem and those are a little bit harder for people to recognize because everybody gets a skipped beat once in a while where you feel like your heart speeds up really faster for a minute or two, that’s normal to that habit. It isn’t normal though to have those episodes and be feeling light-headed or dizzy on a regular basis, and those are the symptoms you want to watch for. If you have those occurring and you didn’t stand up really fast or have a fright, those are the symptoms that you should go to your regular doctor and say, “These are things I have been experiencing, I’d like to get an EKG. I want to have my heart checked”, because unfortunately, when you have an arrhythmia problem, like I have and many other people have, often your first symptom of heart disease is your last … Because when you go into cardiac arrest, that’s the situation where, as you see on television and in the movies so often, it isn’t that they rush you to the emergency room, you need to defibrillated with those paddles that you often see when they call for in the hospital coat boy and everybody comes running and they pull up those paddles and they shock the person, their body jump and you’re watching the heart monitor to see if maybe it will come out of that very frightening, a steady line or broken up line into a normal heartbeat. Well, to get to the chase basically, what happened was, this young man did my CPR. They called 911. The first medical respondent was a firefighter who came in the big red truck and ladder and they came into the studio, they took over from him, they cut my clothes off. I was… I am really happy I don’t actually remember any of this -- the trauma of it -- block that from your mind but they cut my clothes off of my chest and applied the paddles twice, shocked me. That still doesn’t bring me back, so more the CPR, but this time the paramedics have arrived, they took over. Another fore shock and finally on the sixth defibrillation, at the highest settings the defibrillators can shock you, they were able to help my heart get back its natural heartbeat. It’s the natural pacemaker that kicked in and I was able to get my heart beat on its own but that was six shocks in almost 20 minutes that I really was, if not biologically, I was clinically dead. So I am speaking to you today as a brand new teenager, it’s been 13 years now. I am on my second ground in life. My mission really is to make women aware that heart disease is your No. 1 risk that there are risk factors that you can control and there are some that you can’t change. You can’t change your genetics, you can’t change your propensity toward heart disease depending on your race and your age but there are risk factors that you can control. You can control your diet. You can, with the help of your primary doctor and your medical healthcare team, find out what your cholesterol levels are. You can do what you can to help manage your stress. There’s all sorts of things that we can do. Our exercise level, you can step it up. Your heart is a muscle, you want to work that muscle, you want to keep it healthy. So I guess what I would say to you is education is your greatest empowerment and get out there. Don’t ignore your symptoms. You know your body better than anyone. If it starts behaving in an odd way, if you have a little funny twinges, if you’re having extreme fatigue in a way that you’ve never had before, women’s heart disease symptoms present differently than men. So don’t ignore it because very often heart attacks, not cardiac arrests, but heart attacks can come on and you can have little silent one that are damaging your heart and you are working through them. You really want to love, love, love, love that heart of yours and get out there and love you. The heart of you is your heart and you’re the heart of your family and frankly, I think women are the heart of our community. So it’s not selfish to make the time to do things for you so that you can be there for everyone else. I would hope that my story, as you can tell I am talking to you, they were able to restore my heartbeat but it meant that I was then taken to a hospital where I was monitored for about a week. The first four days I don’t remember at all because that kind of heart trauma causes you to lose your short-term memory. The way that I now am moving forward and taking the best care of my heart, unfortunately, because of my pre-existing condition, I am at great risk of having another cardiac arrest. So to protect my heart and to give me an independent life, I have a device, an internal device now that serves as, sort of like having a set of paramedics in my chest with me all the time. I have an internal defibrillator. It’s a small device, about the size of a pager or a stopwatch. That will give you a good idea of the width of it and the shape of it and it fits inside my chest and underneath my collar bone, above my heart and it has a wire that goes down through my arteries that fits actually in my heart. And it monitors all the time, it listens to my heartbeat and that way if it gets dangerously fast again, it will detect that dangerous heartbeat and it can power up a battery and it will shock me internally instead of my collapsing and hopefully being near people who could call 911. I have my own mobile system on my own and so I feel safe to travel throughout the world, to drive, to be alone, its an amazing thing that the medical research has brought about, so that I am able to be an independent person and here I am at 51-years-old and I’ve had an extra 13 years now beyond what most people get because I am in the 5 percent of people who actually have survived out-of- hospital cardiac arrest. I don’t want any of you to go through what I went through. I want you to hear my story, get curious, get stimulated to talk to your doctor, to find out your family’s personal health history and to protect that incredibly beautiful organ that you have inside the heart of you, your heart. So again, I am Tracey Conway. I’d love for you to come here to me, speak sometime if I am ever in your community, I talk a lot for the American Heart Association, for different hospitals, and it’s my mission to help you have your very best life. So take care and love your heart and if you are interested in reading a little bit more about me or my story or for any reason you might have in a situation where you’ve been sitting having the command and talk to group of yours, please come, visit me at my website. You can find me at www.traceyconway.com. Thanks and have a fabulous night.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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