When she began experiencing shortness of breath during a regular walk with a friend, Sue Chlebek ignored it, and even after an Internet search told her the shortness of breath, left arm numbness, and chest pains that followed were classic heart attack symptoms, she dismissed it. After all, she was a healthy, active, non-smoker who ate well and carried only an extra 10-15 pounds.
Chlebek, of La Porte, Indiana, was experiencing a heart attack that would lead to sudden cardiac death in the emergency room. She survived and now dedicates her life to increasing education and spreading awareness of women’s health and heart disease.
Chlebek is being recognized by the American College of Cardiology’s “I am CardioSmart” contest for her inspirational lifestyle change and her resolve to help others who have heart-related diseases. She is one of five heart disease patients being recognized by ACC during 2015 Heart Month.
In 2010, after taking her young children to school and going on her regular 3 mile walk, Chlebek’s chest pains worsened. She soon realized that she had to quickly get to the Indiana University Health La Porte Hospital.
Just seconds after arriving in the emergency room, she suffered sudden cardiac arrest. Hospital officials called for a “Code Blue” response and doctors were able to successfully defibrillate her back to life. Cardiologists then implanted a stent in her left anterior descending artery, which had been 95 percent blocked at the time of her sudden cardiac death.
“Frankly, after my heart attack, I was afraid to do much of anything let alone test my heart by exercising,” Chlebek said. “But after I was discharged from the hospital, I realized I had to change my lifestyle and decided to write myself a life plan which included working to become healthy.”
Chlebek started to drastically change her diet. She also began and then strengthened her exercise plan which helped her to lose 25 pounds. This effort resulted in her cholesterol readings being reduced by half and her blood pressure levels being cut to 100/60. Chlebek also credited the Indiana University Health La Porte Hospital cardiac rehabilitation team with inspiring her to begin jogging.
She said that with the encouragement of her family and the support of the rehabilitation staff she now regularly runs 5K races in the La Porte area.
“I view running as a celebration of life. To me, it is the expression of hope and joy and overcoming. Since my sudden cardiac arrest, I apply these three virtues to my life; hope for the future, joy of being alive, and strength to overcome heart disease.”
Chlebek said she was also challenged by depression, which is common among heart patients.
“I read a statistic that of the women who survive a heart attack, only 50 percent of them survive a year. I started crying uncontrollably and thought I wasn't going to be here to raise my kids,” she said. “My cardiologist assured me that many of those do not make necessary lifestyle changes and I decided then that I was going to do everything in my power to be there for my kids. I made those changes and have beat the odds!”
Chlebek is also a volunteer at WomenHeart — the national coalition for women with heart disease — and leads a monthly, local support group for women with heart disease.
“I have found my calling with WomenHeart. It is wonderful to give back to women in need and to spread awareness of sudden cardiac arrest and heart health.” Chlebek said. “What a blessing it is to enjoy and live life to the fullest. I hope that through my story, I can continue to encourage and help others to live healthier lives.”
“When something bad happens, you can either let it destroy you or let it strengthen you,” Chlebek said. “I decided early on that my heart disease would not destroy me, that it was going to strengthen me and make me a better, stronger person. I decided that I would not just be a survivor, but also a thriver.”
CardioSmart is the patient education and support program developed by the American College of Cardiology. Its mission is to engage, inform and empower patients to better prepare them to participate in their own care. In 2013, CardioSmart established the “I am CardioSmart” contest to find individuals who were living well with specific heart disease conditions: high blood pressure, heart failure, atrial fibrillation, previous heart attack or coronary artery disease, and showcase their stories to inspire other patients. www.cardiosmart.org, @CardioSmart, www.facebook.com/CardioSmart.
To read more about Sue’s story, visit www.cardiosmart.org/Connect/Patient-Stories/Sue-Chlebek.
Gerry Yumul of Victoria, Minnesota, was selected as the overall I am CardioSmart winner through voting on the CardioSmart Facebook page. Read his story on the CardioSmart website.
For more information on the symptoms and treatments for coronary artery disease, visit www.cardiosmart.org/Heart-Conditions/Heart-Attack.
The American College of Cardiology is a 49,000-member medical society that is the professional home for the entire cardiovascular care team. The mission of the College is to transform cardiovascular care and to improve heart health. The ACC leads in the formation of health policy, standards and guidelines. The College operates national registries to measure and improve care, provides professional medical education, disseminates cardiovascular research and bestows credentials upon cardiovascular specialists who meet stringent qualifications. For more information, visit ACC.org.