by Vonnie Woodrick
My heart broke‚ I mean, it literally broke.
We encounter paper hearts, candy hearts, red hearts and pink hearts practically every day, which represent love. As children, most of us experienced cutting out paper hearts to give as gifts for Valentine’s Day; we’ve exchanged candy hearts with sweet messages on them or simply notes with sweet sayings. Typically we choose these designs because the color of hearts hold significant meaning, such as red for romance. i understand’s brand color, pink, represents unconditional love.
It isn’t until we are older that we begin to think of our own heart health and doing what is necessary to keep it healthy, such as — eating a proper diet, exercising to get the blood pumping and keeping our stress levels low to prevent damage.
I have had the misfortune of experiencing a heart issue. I learned a lot about my emotional and physical health through the experience. I felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. I thought I was experiencing a panic attack, so I decided to rest. Several hours later, I still felt no relief. I googled “heart attack in women.” I kept reading that with any chest pain, the number one thing to do was go to the emergency room. So, I did. I didn’t believe that I was truly experiencing a heart attack, but I figured I better be safe than sorry.
It was a quiet night at the Metro Health ER but as soon as I mentioned chest pain, I was immediately sat in a wheelchair and wheeled back to a room. No time was spared as they drew blood, did an EKG and within minutes I was admitted into Metro after being told I had suffered from a heart attack.
It was all very surreal — I exercise, I eat right and my consumption of alcohol is very low, so why would I suffer a heart attack? I was confused and overwhelmed yet very thankful that I decided to go to the ER before the damage worsened.
My Heart was Textbook Perfect
The next day, I was brought to the operating room, put on a table, shown a cartoon version of getting a stent put in a vessel to clear an artery they assumed was blocked. I was put to sleep with the anticipation of awakening with a stent in a vessel.
When I awoke, there was no stent — no artery was blocked. In fact, I was told I was clean and my heart was textbook perfect. The doctor explained that I had experienced, “broken heart syndrome,” also known as cardiomyothopy. My heart was damaged due to immense and continuous stress. I knew my life was stressful at times but was it any more stressful than any other widowed parent trying to raise three children alone?
My cardiologist, Dr. Matthew Sevensma from Metro Cardio and Vascular stopped in to see me the next day as I was walking in the hallway.
“I don’t know what you have going on in your life but you need to change it,” he said to me. I looked at him in a daze and thought to myself, “Really? How do I change something that I feel I have no control of?”
From that moment on, I set out to change my life. I took a serious look around me and ask myself some pretty deep questions. My heart damage didn’t come from not eating right or exercising. My damage came from stress and the people I surrounded myself with. I have always been a doer, and I chose to be around people who for the most part are takers. In my case, it turned out to be toxic for my health.
Why don’t I respect myself enough that I allow others to take advantage of me? Why do I surround myself with broken people who I think I can fix? I lost my husband to depression in 2005. Perhaps since I couldn’t fix my own husband, I set out to fix others?
So, I changed. I began to recognize the importance of me and maybe for the first time in my life, I began standing up for what I believe. I’ve had the courage to say goodbye to toxic people and make my own needs a priority. I am living proof that it’s possible to pick up the pieces and heal a broken heart. It only took one person to do it and that person was me.
I stopped looking for others to make me happy. I found the happiness within myself. I found so much gratitude with everything I still had. Once I did that, I discovered contentment — such a beautiful gift to hold.
Recognizing that your heart can truly break is a step to self-love and make yourself a priority. It is not a selfish act — in fact it’s a selfless act that could actually save your life.
Vonnie Woodrick is the founder and executive director of I understand, a West Michigan organization that supports those impacted my mental illness and works to ease the stigma around depression and suicide. Learn more about i understand at iunderstandloveheals.org.