Getting Through Heart Disease With Facebook

The online community supports members' healthy new lifestyles

(This article ran previously on the website of the American Heart Association.)

Andrelle Perry’s problems started with a lingering cough.

She thought it might be pneumonia. The urgent-care clinic called it bronchitis.

Weeks later, ER doctors agreed: bronchitis. But when several rounds of steroids failed to help, Perry saw a new physician. He called it asthma and ordered an immediate breathing treatment.

Inhaling the medicated air, Perry prayed that she would soon breathe deeply enough to launch the voice-over business that, after years of planning, she was weeks from debuting. Instead, she soon found herself struggling to breathe. Perry had to put her hands on the walls to steer down the hallway at work. Her voice was a whisper —  and weakening. She dozed at her desk. Fearing she’d fall asleep on the hour-long drive home, she became a regular at a hotel near her Dallas office. Those mounting bills provided yet another worry.

The source of her problem turned out to be her heart. It wasn’t pumping hard enough to deliver oxygen-rich blood to the rest of her body. She had congestive heart failure, or CHF.

Making Big Changes After a Diagnosis

The heart’s pumping efficiency is measured by something called ejection fraction. The normal range is 50 percent and up; the danger zone is 40 percent and down. By the time of Perry’s diagnosis, her ejection fraction was around 25 percent.

“My heart was suffocating, and I didn’t know it,” she said.

That was in October. Over the 11 days in the hospital and the weeks that followed, Perry began turning her life around.

It wasn’t easy. She went through some dark times. As CEO of the American Heart Association, I’m proud her turnaround was sparked by the our Go Red For Women movement via the #GoRedGetFit group on Facebook.

This online community became Perry’s support group on her new health journey.

“Someone is always there for me,” she said. “Some people share stories that are kind of sad and we help them deal with their diagnosis. Sometimes I get exercise tips or recipes. It’s nice to always have a place to go for whatever I need.”

A Facebook Group for the Go Red for Women Movement

The #GoRedGetFit community includes a diverse group of women — survivors, caregivers and loved ones — dealing with all forms of heart disease. Conversations range from universal themes like diet, exercise and emotional challenges, to specifics about symptoms and treatments. There’s also a #GoRedGetFit health and fitness challenge.

Two friends recommended the Facebook group to Perry. She clicked on it at just the right time.

The diagnosis of CHF sent her reeling because that very condition took her father’s life in 2010.

“Your daddy died of this — how are you going to get out of it?” she thought.

Perry knew heart disease ran on both sides of her family, but she’d never had any issues. Throughout her 56 years, doctors had always said her heart was strong. Her bigger concern was “high blood pressure, diabetes, gout — sadly, I’m part of a typical African-American family,” she said.

When her dad was diagnosed with CHF, he’d been given six months to live. He lasted 18. Perry found no solace in that. She began planning her funeral. Single with no kids, she also began deciding who would get her possessions.

Getting into ‘Fighting Mode’

Getting those negative thoughts out of her system turned out to be an early phase of her recovery. Soon, a more optimistic, confident person emerged.

Or, as she described it, “I got into fighting mode.”

“I looked at it as something I was going to come out of,” she said. “I had to. I believed that God was going to get me out of it, but I needed to do my part.”

And she is. She’s taking her medicine and changing her lifestyle. She rarely eats salty or sweet foods. She’s testing different exercise programs in search of the best fit.

“These are really just the basics that we should all be doing anyway,” she said.

Best of all, it’s working.

At her most recent check-up, her ejection fraction was around 55 percent — solidly in the normal range.

Making Plans

Perry’s voice is strong, although a tad shy of the caliber she’ll need for consistent voice-over work. Still, she has launched a website for her business, The Perry Group. She’s expanded the scope to include officiating weddings.

She’s also gotten into making crafts, further indication that Perry plans to be around for many more years.

“I keep reminding myself,” she said, “`Don’t take it for granted that you’re getting better, don’t stop doing what you need to be doing.’”

By Nancy Brown
Nancy Brown is CEO of the American Heart Association, the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organization fighting cardiovascular diseases, including stroke.

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