How to Find a New Identity — and a New Career! — After a Heart Disease Diagnosis

by Pamela Kaufman Health Writer

Kelsey Gumm joined the Navy in 2004 when she was only 17. She thrived, becoming a firefighter, then a boot-camp instructor. She was proud to serve her country, as her grandfather had done when he was young.

That all disappeared in a heartbeat when, in 2014, she was diagnosed with a life-threatening cardiac condition that ended her decade-long military career. Just. Like. That.

Kelsey Gumm during her time in the military.
Kelsey prepares for a military drill. / Kelsey Gumm

Her diagnosis was scary, and so was the prospect of finding a whole new line of work. She felt depressed and overwhelmed. “I spent a lot of time on the couch eating potato chips because I didn’t care if I died — I thought I had a death sentence,” she says. “I was pretty stagnant for three years.” She gained more than 50 pounds.

But then, after some false starts, she began to see a way forward.

Today Kelsey is a 32-year-old college student in Wisconsin and a “Real Women” volunteer for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women initiative. (CVS Health is the national sponsor for this campaign, offering free heart-health screenings at MinuteClinic every Thursday in February 2019.)

Here Kelsey talks to HealthCentral about reinventing herself and shares her insights about living — and working — with heart disease.

HealthCentral (HC): Kelsey, what led to your heart-disease diagnosis?

Kelsey Gumm (KG): For 10 years, I would pass out after intense exercise or training. One time I passed out when we were doing flight-deck firefighting drills — we were practicing putting out fires on helicopters, which is pretty hard work. But the major episode that led to my diagnosis was when I passed out in the gym one day and wound up on the floor.

They took me to the emergency room and I explained to the nurse practitioner that this time when I passed out, I couldn’t feel my arms and legs. And somebody had said that I looked a bit gray.

The nurse practitioner said they’d put in a cardiology consult. I kind of laughed it off because I was 27, with no family history of heart disease. I was like, “Oh, okay, whatever.”

That’s when I was diagnosed with left ventricular non-compaction cardiomyopathy. The bottom left side of my heart isn’t a full muscle. It looks like a sponge. So it’s not able to pump blood well because it’s really squishy.

The doctor met me and my mom in his office to give us the diagnosis. My mom joked about how if this were a movie, he’d be saying, “You’re going to die.” But then he said, “Your career in the military is over.”

HC: What was it like to hear that the career you’d spent 10 years building was finished?

KG: It was devastating. Not only was I trying to process this new medical condition and everything that came with that, but I had to accept that the only career I’d ever known was going to change dramatically.

HC: And how have you gone about finding a new career that you could be just as passionate about?

KG: It’s been trial and error, for sure. I’ve done a lot of weird jobs just to take up time in my life. I was a barista, then I worked in retail. Then I started going to school. I had originally declared a business-management major but after a semester of that, I was like, “This is not my cup of tea.”

Then I switched to secondary education and history and wanted to be a high-school history teacher, but it just wasn’t the right fit. So now I’m going to school for communications and public relations, with the hope of working with hospitals.

I was never a huge fan of going to school; I prefer life experience over book experience. But I’ve really learned a lot about myself. I think that it’s humbling sometimes when you’re 32 and going to school with 18 year olds, but I’ve gained a lot of knowledge and wisdom from them.

HC: What advice do you have for other heart-disease survivors who’ve had to give up jobs they’ve loved?

KG: There are a lot of stations of grief when you get diagnosed with a disease like this. It took me about three-and-a-half years to finally accept that this is my new life. It's important not to rush it. Just take your time and really reflect on what you’re going through.

I was blessed in having a very supportive network of family and friends. When I changed my job for the fifth or sixth time, they were like, “Okay, well, just keep working hard.” In that way they were very encouraging.

HC: What’s your lifestyle like as a college student — any more eating chips on the couch?

KG: I’ve changed my lifestyle dramatically. I eat a lot smarter, and choose healthier foods. I definitely try to instill that in my college friends, because sometimes their food choices aren’t as good.

I try to exercise outside when it’s warm out and aim to bike about 100 miles a week. When it’s colder, I’ve been taking spin classes, which I really enjoy. I just have to keep things at a lesser intensity. They tell you to turn up the intensity and I’m like, “Well, we’ll just keep it down here.”

Interview has been condensed and edited.

Pamela Kaufman
Meet Our Writer
Pamela Kaufman

Pamela Kaufman got her professional start covering health at Vogue, where she wrote two columns on news and trends as well as feature stories. Her interest in healthy eating brought her to Food & Wine, where she became executive editor. Today she writes articles about health and food, profiles courageous people living with chronic disease, and pursues all kinds of great stories. You can follow her adventures as an eater, mom, and traveler.