I Had A Heart Attack At 38—And It Inspired Me To Become A Dietitian

I was at the movies with friends when it happened. I felt tightness in my chest, I started sweating, and my left arm felt like dead weight—all the classic symptoms I knew men have during a heart attack. I kept trying to put my arm on the armrest, but it wouldn’t stay there—it just felt so heavy.

I thought about getting up and going to the rest room, but I was scared to isolate myself. I had recently come back from a work conference, where a woman had stepped away from dinner because she didn’t feel well, had a heart attack, and died. In total denial—and in silent fear—I decided to ignore the problem and hoped it’d go away; I didn’t even tell my friends what was happening.

I felt disoriented, but I sat through the rest of the movie. By the time it ended I felt pretty okay, so I did something that seems unbelievable now: I went to Wendy’s for a spicy chicken sandwich and fries and called it a night. Later that weekend, though, I had two or three more episodes where I’d get completely exhausted doing everyday tasks. I couldn’t even vacuum without having to take breaks.

Even though I recognized the signs, I told myself I couldn’t have had a heart attack. I was only 38, didn’t have any major risk factors or family history of heart issues, and had worked as a group fitness instructor at one point. But the reality was, even though I didn’t have any issues with blood sugar, blood pressure, or cholesterol, my lifestyle wasn’t healthy. I was working a very stressful job in research administration, where I was busy helping university faculty members get grants, I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, and I was about 20 pounds overweight. I’d eat well and exercise regularly for six months, but then spend the next six months on the couch eating pizza.

I did something that seems unbelievable now: I went to Wendy’s for a spicy chicken sandwich and fries and called it a night.

It wasn’t until the following Monday that I started to take what was happening to me seriously. I was telling a friend over the phone about my weird episodes and the concern in his voice hit me hard. I thought of how another good friend of ours had died suddenly from a brain aneurysm earlier that year, and here I was with the power to go get checked out. I had to go, I had to take advantage of the opportunity others didn’t have. So I went to the ER.

When my blood work came back, the doctor confirmed my fears: I’d had a heart attack. One of my arteries was blocked, so I was immediately admitted to the hospital and needed surgery to have a small stent (a small mesh wire tube) put into it. To say I was shocked—and horrified—would be an understatement.

A few days later, they told me I was very lucky that I didn’t have any heart muscle damage, gave me a ridiculous number of medications—one for my blood pressure, one for my cholesterol, one to regulate my heart’s rhythm, a blood thinner, and aspirin—and sent me home.

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I’m lucky my heart attack wasn’t fatal, but it (and my surgery) really did wipe me out. I couldn’t believe how weak I was—I’d take a shower and be too tired to do anything for the rest of the day.

And no matter how many questions I asked, no one had a clear-cut answer for what caused my heart attack. But of course I knew that the combination of stress and smoking didn’t help, and I was so overcome with fear that I quit cigarettes for good the day I left the hospital. (When my mom started having cardiac issues three months later, I realized genetics may have been more involved that I’d previously thought.)

I couldn’t believe how weak I was—I’d take a shower and be too tired to do anything for the rest of the day.

About two weeks after my surgery, I started attending cardio rehab three times a week—and it seriously restored my faith that I would be okay. I walked on a treadmill, rode a stationary bike, and lifted one- or two-pound weights. Slowly, I started feeling stronger. Once in a while, a pharmacist would come in to talk about medications and a dietitian would come in to talk about eating a heart-healthy diet, and I really took that nutrition advice to heart.

I focused on reducing my intake of sodium and saturated fat— I even started baking my own bread—and eating more vegetables and fewer processed foods. Over the next six months, I lost close to 20 pounds, and reached my lowest adult weight.

After a month or so, I started to feel like myself again. The fitter I got—and the more I learned about healthy eating—the more I wanted to make health a part of my career. The dietitian at cardio rehab had encouraged me so much, so I did some research and decided to go into nutrition as a career.

I’m not going to lie: Changing my career was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. I quit my full-time job and spent two years on a second bachelor’s degree, and then had to follow that up with a combined two-year master’s degree and 1,200-hour dietetic internship. My heart attack actually helped me get through it without stressing like crazy, though. It forced me to change my attitude, put less pressure on myself, and let things roll off my back more easily.

After a month or so, I started to feel like myself again. The fitter I got—and the more I learned about healthy eating—the more I wanted to make health a part of my career.

People think nutrition is so easy (and maybe I did, too) because we all eat food, and food is fairly simple at face value—but as I started learning about the chemistry of it all, I realized how complex it really is.

At first I was really interested in working in a hospital so I could help people like me, but I wanted to have relationships with my patients and work with them for long enough to see them progress over time, so I started my own business. Now I’m a registered dietitian and a health coach. I host regular meal prep workshops on everything from Mason jar salads to healthy afternoon snacks, and am developing in-person and online classes to help people take control of their health, improve their nutrition and relationship with food, and become more active.

Of course, heart health is one of my biggest focuses. I want other people to know that it’s never too late to change their health and that they can make decisions today that will make a difference in their lives. Though I was very lucky my heart attack wasn’t worse, I don’t want other people to have to go through something like that. As a dietitian, I can help educate others about the dietary factors involved in heart health, like eating enough soluble fiber and healthy unsaturated fats, and watching out for salt.

Now I see my cardiologist once a year for a follow-up, still take more medications than most people, and never put off going to the doctor when I don’t feel well. Over the years, I’ve struck a balance between eating for my health and enjoying delicious food. I may not eat a strictly plant-based diet, but I definitely eat more vegetables than the average person and I try to keep my sodium low.

I want other people to know that it’s never too late to change their health and that they can make decisions today that will make a difference in their lives.

I’ll admit, I’m still a little inconsistent with exercise, but I’ve fostered a love for hot yoga, running, and strength training—and my two energetic dogs keep both my husband and I moving! The fact that I feel so much more fulfilled in my new career has been a huge game-changer for my stress levels and overall well-being.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my experience, it’s that if something feels off with your health, it’s worth getting it checked out. A lot of the time people don’t want to be a bother—but trust me, it’s better to go to the doctor 10 times just in case than to stay home and have your health—and life—change in the blink of an eye.