February: It's Not Just About Chocolate Hearts Anymore

Health Professional

Credit: Thinkstock

Here we are in February already. Everyone is aware that it’s the month of hearts: pink and red Valentine displays in all of the stores, parties at schools, lots of heart-shaped chocolates. But wearing the color red physically, or pinning a red icon online, holds a special significance for anyone who has heart disease or who has survived a heart event. The month of red hearts is the month for awareness about heart health.

Each year, February honors cardiac specialists of all kinds: from surgeons and cardiologists to general practitioners, from cardiac telemetry techs to rehab teams. And it offers a chance for heart patients who have been given a second chance at health to say thank you… and to encourage everyone to take another look at how they treat their most important organ.

February’s National Heart Month holds special significance for me, because 2/26 marks the six-month anniversary of my own open heart surgery. It’s also the one-year anniversary of that fateful office visit — the one in which my cardiologist said the words I expected but desperately wanted to avoid: “I think it’s time to call the surgeon.” From February 2016, when I vaguely acknowledged the Wear Red for Women day (it’s February 3 each year, as I’ve since learned), to this same month one year later, I have lived in a flurry of appointments and decisions that revolve around my heart. Heart disease may be silent, but it’s not easy: heart limitations force their way into moments as mundane as going out to mail a letter.

As my recovery progresses mostly as expected, I have noticed the positive effects of my own small health changes. After surgery, my daily exercises or brisk walks, together with a few diet changes like swapping salt for sodium-free spices, have helped strengthen my heart and kept my weight and blood pressure in control.

More significantly, I find myself turning my heart surgery journey into action: putting my introverted self out there in person and online proudly to show what small efforts to love your heart can accomplish. Before surgery, I relied on the American Heart Association and so many other web sites to plan my preparation and recovery days. As I’ve recovered, I’ve joined some of the many patient groups, including WomenHeart.

This nonprofit focuses specifically on the risks of heart disease in women and the challenges women face in living with heart disease or recovering from events like heart attacks. Their advocacy and leadership inspire me every day already, and I can’t wait to become more involved. To extend the benefits I gained from cardiac rehabilitation after my “graduation” from monitored exercise, I joined the 2017 IronHeart Challenge, too; IronHeart brings awareness about congenital heart disease; members focus specifically on the benefits of exercising for heart health, and they constantly encourage one another at any ability level.

Not every outlet for support or advocacy focuses on a single event, and not every group is national. If you are recovering from a heart surgery or event, you might not feel ready for group activities. As a recovering open heart surgery patient, though, I urge you to find your niche, whether it’s in a gym, an online chat group, or simply a weekly coffee and walk date with a neighbor. Share your own heart disease story wherever you are most comfortable, and make some small changes for your heart. You never know whom you will inspire.

Nicole Van Hoey, PharmD, is a freelance writer and editor for consumer and professional health publications. She underwent open heart surgery in August, 2016, and writes about the experience, including cardiac rehab, for HealthCentral. She can be found on Twitter at @VHMedComm.