Christina Zullo went to the Riddle Hospital Emergency Department thinking she had pneumonia, but the problem was more serious than she imagined.
"I was 44 years old, walking around with arteries that were 99-100% clogged; I had a heart attack, and I had no idea," explains Christina, who needed emergency open-heart surgery to save her life. "I knew I was likely to develop heart problems; I have type 1 diabetes and a family history of heart disease. I intended to get checked out but waited too long."
Now 50, Christina, a mental health counselor, educates her female clients about women and heart disease, encouraging them to prioritize their physical and mental health.
"We're too busy as a society. We need to step back, take a deep breath, and pay attention to our bodies. When something isn't right, it's important to follow up early with a health care professional," says Christina.
"Self-care, I feel, is vital to people's mental and physical health. "I try to do for myself what I emphasize in my practice—taking time to do something just for your own relaxation. My favorite creative outlet is counted cross-stitch. I've enjoyed it since I was eight years old," says Christina, who also rearranged her office hours to allow more time for health-focused activities.
"Christina is a strong person who advocates for herself and other women," says Colleen Hanley, MD, a cardiologist at Lankenau Medical Center, specializing in heart rhythm disorders. She shares her experience whenever she can. "When another young woman expressed concern about how a defibrillator, a device that sends an electric pulse or shock to the heart to restore a normal heartbeat, would affect her life, Christina helped ease her mind by sharing her experience."
Christina's journey from heart attack to heart health
In December 2016, Christina had heartburn, so she treated herself with an over-the-counter antacid. A couple of weeks later, she developed a severe cough. Not liking how her lungs sounded, Christina's primary care doctor sent her to Riddle Hospital's emergency department. At first, doctors suspected pneumonia, but after removing 1.5 liters of fluid from her lungs, they saw her heart was struggling, unable to pump enough blood to meet her body's needs. Christina was in heart failure.
A diagnostic cardiac catheterization revealed that she had a heart attack a couple of months earlier.
"What I thought was heartburn was probably a heart attack," says Christina. The test also revealed that the arteries to her heart were clogged. Her heart was not getting enough oxygen-rich blood, and her life was in jeopardy. Christina was rushed by ambulance to Lankenau Medical Center, where cardiac surgeon Roberto Rodriguez, MD, performed an emergency triple bypass to restore blood flow to her heart.
After taking time to recover, Christina returned to work on her 45th birthday. "I usually take the day off but wanted to get back to living," she says.
Christina's cardiac care team
"With Main Line Health, I have a team of doctors looking out for me," she says. For example, Christina had an irregular heartbeat about six months after her surgery, so Raul Moldovan, MD, her cardiologist at Riddle Hospital, sent her to see Dr. Hanley.
"A heart attack can weaken and scar your heart muscle, making you prone to abnormal heart rhythms. In some cases, the heart stops beating," says Dr. Hanley, who implanted a small defibrillator device in Christina's chest to watch for and detect abnormal rhythms. If they do occur, her defibrillator will deliver a shock to restore normal rhythm, helping to save her life. The device sends information about Christina's heart in real-time to Dr. Hanley's office, notifying her if there is a problem.
"I can't say enough about the care I receive at Main Line Health," says Christina. "Every six months, I see Dr. Moldovan and Dr. Hanley for a checkup. Along with my defibrillator, these visits give me peace of mind, knowing they are looking out for me."
Taking care of you
"Women often push symptoms aside to be caretakers for others," says Dr. Hanley, who shares some tips on how to be your best heart health advocate:
1. Build a relationship with your primary care provider.
Be comfortable discussing body changes, have your symptoms checked, and be honest about your family history and lifestyle. Your primary care provider is your navigator to other specialists.
2. Be aware of pregnancy and heart disease.
Your chances of developing heart disease increase when you have a miscarriage or develop diabetes or high blood pressure when pregnant, so inform your doctor, who may suggest seeing a cardiologist.
3. Listen to your body.
Women experience heart disease differently from men. It's not always the crushing chest pain you think of with a heart attack. It could be as simple as being short of breath, fatigue with activity, or having jaw and arm pain. Call 9-1-1 if you have heart attack symptoms.
4. Pay attention to your heartbeat.
While it's normal to have extra beats now and then, get checked for a heart rhythm disorder if something feels different to you.