Written by Jacki Wood in the Nodaway News Leader for Heart Health Month
More women die of heart disease than all forms of cancer combined. Unfortunately, this killer isn’t as easy to see. Heart disease is often silent, hidden and misunderstood – American Heart Association
The signs had been there but they were slight, hidden even. And then there were the risk factors.
But Maryville resident Jill Hardin was too busy for a stroke, too busy for a heart attack.
“Even me, who had a father who had a stroke, sat in my kitchen and said, well, gee, I can’t go to the hospital today because I’ve got to do this, this and this.”
It was two weeks before Christmas and the 66-year-old single mother of an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old was too busy to realize what was wrong until it was almost too late.
It was Saturday and she hadn’t done the laundry yet. She’d planned on going Christmas shopping later that day. And then there was the wrapping to do and Christmas cookies she had promised to make with the girls.
“I’m thinking of all of this stuff,” she said. “And I’m trying to tell myself that even though my right hand didn’t have any feeling, even though I couldn’t see, even though I couldn’t talk, that I was fine.
“I was going to be fine. Just give me a few minutes and I’ll rally”
At 66, Hardin stays very active. She plants trees, flowers and bushes, mends fences and does other outside work. She refinishes floors and paints walls, ceilings and trim.
“I’m kind of a jack-of-all trades,” she said. “And I’ve just always been very active.”
She had a few underlying health problems, but they hadn’t been enough to slow her down any or make her feel like she should.
High cholesterol that she was told to watch several years ago. But nobody had said anything about it recently.
An ocular migraine she was diagnosed with a couple of years ago. No pain, just a kaleidoscope effect she would have once in a while, but nothing really to worry about.
A pain that went from her left shoulder across her chest and to her right shoulder after carrying a heavy box a couple of years ago. She thought she had just pulled something. When the pains starting happening more frequently. she was diagnosed with acid reflux.
Chest pain this winter that she noticed only when she went out to chore on a really cold morning, but went away quickly after going back inside.
And she was tired.
She told her doctor this. But she didn’t have trouble climbing stairs and she wasn’t short of breath, so the doctor said, maybe at 66, she might consider slowing down.
“I felt good so I didn’t see any reason to slow down,” she said. “I had things to do. And I’ve never been to a doctor who was concerned about anything, and when I had a complaint, there was always some other reason.”
That Saturday morning, December 14, 2013, she had been busy doing her regular morning activities when she suddenly experienced one of those ocular migraines.
“I couldn’t see clearly. I tried to talk, I tried to continue to communicate, but I couldn’t.”
Thankfully, a friend was at the house.
“He kept saying he couldn’t understand me. I was fighting to see and I was trying to talk and then I gave up.”
She grabbed a bottle of aspirin, and when she went to get the pill out of her palm, she noticed her right hand didn’t have any feeling in it.
“We debated for a while whether to take me to the hospital or not,” she said. “I’m saying to myself, come on, there’s nothing wrong with me.”
Hardin said she wants to share her story to help other women.
“Just because you’re healthy doesn’t mean you’re healthy,” she said.
There were warning signs. One of the most important symptoms for women is exhaustion, she said.
“But how many women aren’t exhausted?”
She said a woman today generally has a job, but she also usually has most of the responsibilities in the home including meals and laundry and running the kids to activities.
“She’s tired,” Hardin said. “And she doesn’t know when she’s really tired.”
On that Saturday morning, after some convincing from her friend, she finally agreed to go to the hospital.
“The doctor there saw a woman who was healthy having a few problems with her speech but not a lot,” she said.
He said she was probably having a TIA, or transient ischemic attack, which is when the blood flow to a part of the brain stops for a brief period of time. He told her she might have them from time to time or not at all, but he wanted her to stay overnight.
Then he called a doctor in neurology, who said she needed to be transferred to a stroke center right away.
She traveled to St. Luke’s by ambulance – after being convinced driving herself in her pick-up was not a good idea – and was swarmed with doctors who asked lots of questions about her previous diagnoses, her symptoms and her family history.
After days of testing, a double bypass heart surgery, a carotid endarterectomy (a surgery used to prevent strokes in those who have carotid artery disease) and nine days at St. Luke’s, Hardin was finally able to come home two days before Christmas.
“I was very lucky. I’m very fortunate. I think the thing that saved me was that I have always been very active.”
Looking back, Hardin realizes the signs were there.
“It was different this year,” she said. “I was slower to rally. And my enthusiasm was down.”
But being a single parent, if she didn’t do the things that needed to be done, no one else was going to, she said. So she made herself do them.
“I was tired, though, exhausted,” she said. “And I knew it was different.”
She’s now undergoing cardiac rehab through St. Francis Hospital in Maryville and realizes some changes need to be made.
But she really wants other women to learn from her story.
“I’m just glad I’m here,” she said. “And I hope I can wake up some other women because this is important. I want them to think, wow, maybe I ought to think about me for a change.”