Open, Full and Imperfect: What You Must Know About Your Heart

Last Friday was National Wear Red Day, an intentional opportunity to wear a red dress as a symbol of awareness of the fact that heart disease is the number one killer of women in America.
I didn’t wear a red dress, but I did get my very first electrocardiogram.
I wish I could say that I had planned it that way.
The truth is that I was experiencing chest pain, a terrible squeezing sensation in my left shoulder and left arm, and an alarming tingling running up my neck. I headed into Urgent Care. The next few days brought a series of tests involving all kinds of electrodes, ultrasounds, and my personal favorite, running on the treadmill. I’m still waiting for the results.
I’m a 43-year-old woman, fit and active, with low blood pressure, a stupendously healthy diet, and zero history of cardiac problems in my family. I’ve never smoked, I drink a small glass of wine most evenings, I have low cholesterol, and I’ve been meditating for over twenty years. You’d be hard pressed to find a woman with a lower degree of risk for any kind of heart disease. Yet, here I am, hanging out in the cardiologist’s office with a bunch of 75-year-olds.
My doctor is my stepfather’s cardiologist. I know he’s good because he has done about a dozen surgeries and procedures to keep my stepfather alive and kicking over the last 20 years. Dr. Toren is a great guy. Still, I never quite imagined I would need to visit him myself.
It’s been rather disconcerting, to say the least.
But it’s also given me an opportunity to think about my heart in a whole new way. I am appreciating this fantastic organ and its ability to beat over a billion times in an average lifetime without (much) assistance.
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Not anymore. In the last few days, I have felt every beat of my heart. I note the blood coursing through my arteries with every pulse. Becoming hyperaware of my heart’s magnificence has resulted in an indescribable sense of awe. I’ve been greatly humbled.
I’d always sort of figured that I was in control of my body. I’ve been certified as a personal fitness trainer, and I know a lot about how to change your shape or size or strength through exercise. I’ve been healthy enough to actually think that I was the one in charge. How ridiculous of me to believe that my body will do exactly what I want it to. It’s been running the show since before I was born.
Anyone suffering from any kind of illness, injury or decreased ability already knows this. I am guilty of ignoring my body on the most important level–recognizing its power over me. In my continuing effort to connect body, mind and spirit, I’ve forgotten that the three don’t always share equal billing.
Empedocles, a philosopher and scientist who lived in Sicily in the 400s BC, was the first to state in any sort of medical way that the heart was the origin of human emotions. I guess we’re supposed to believe, based on current research, that this is completely inaccurate. Our emotions are actually connected to our brains.
But really, it just isn’t as satisfying to think of love as being a head thing. Our hearts seem more poetic, more romantic, more likely to be swept away by the sheer force of nature that is love. We understand what it means and how it feels to be brokenhearted. We feel an ache in our hearts in quite a literal way. A headache is nothing like a heartache.
We use a lot of language that calls attention to this link between our hearts and all that is good, true, beautiful, and just. Whether we’re listening to our heart, opening our heart, connecting to our heart, trusting our heart, or simply living to our heart’s content, we regard it as the seat of the soul and the source of tremendous compassion and tenderness.
Women are supposed to have a pretty good handle on all this, and that’s why I believe that we haven’t really considered women as being susceptible to heart disease. We’re great at picking up on the importance of being aware of breast cancer, but when it comes to the heart, we want to believe that we are somehow protected from what we have come to think of as the stressed-out man’s disease. Or the fat person’s disease. Or the don’t-pay-any-attention-to-your-health disease. We hope that by simply being aware of our emotions, our habits and their effect on our bodies that we’re somehow immune.
I guess what I’m trying to say is this: if you have a heart, then you are at risk. It’s that simple. It’s terribly important to do all the right things, but even then, you’ve still got this ticker that needs tending. You need to know your risks, and you know to know how to reduce them.
I’m not sure what I’m going to learn about my heart when all is said and done, but I’ve already learned an extremely valuable lesson. My heart may be open, it may be full of love, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.
I’m hoping for some seriously good news for Valentine’s Day this year. I’ll be waiting, and wearing red.