Living with asthma wasn’t always easy for Michele, 65, but over the years, it became manageable. As a financial specialist at the University of Tennessee, she maintained a relatively active lifestyle, taking frequent walks across the school’s alpine landscape and, when not at work, singing in her church choir. Then one day, she noticed that these everyday activities were making her lose her breath fairly easily. “I couldn’t catch my breath and my heart was racing,” she tells ESSENCE.
It was at that moment that Michele began to question if her shortness of breath could be linked to something other than her preexisting asthmatic symptoms.
“At first I thought I was having an allergic reaction to the pollen with my asthma, and it was taking my breath away,” she recalls. “I found myself stopping three or four times trying to get to my car to catch my breath. I had a whole lot of swelling in my legs and feet. My feet were so bad, I could hardly wear shoes.”
After visiting her primary care doctor to express her concerns, Michele was prescribed medications to assist with the swelling and an inhaler. However, neither were successful in providing her relief. Her primary care doctor then referred her to a cardiologist, where she received shocking news.
“When I went to go see [the cardiologist], I told him what was going on with me. He did some tests on my lungs and measured how the blood was pumping from the heart and other vital organs,” she says. “His diagnosis was congestive heart failure, which blew me out of the water.”
According to Healthline, congestive heart failure is a “chronic progressive condition that affects the pumping power of your heart muscle.” Heart failure occurs when the lower half of a person’s heart — known as the ventricles — is unable to pump sufficient blood volume to the body, which can result in fluid blockage in the lungs, liver, abdomen, and lower body. All of which reflected Michele’s symptoms, including the fluid retention in her legs and feet.
Following her diagnosis, she learned of her family’s history of cardiovascular disease, which was something that hadn’t been openly discussed. “My mother had congestive heart failure and passed away from complications from it,” she says. “On my paternal side, my grandmother also suffered from congestive heart failure, which I found out about after I was diagnosed.”
Because of her condition, she stresses the importance of knowing your family’s health history as a preventative measure. With that information, you can begin getting yearly heart screenings and adopt a healthy lifestyle as a means of self-advocacy.
“When it comes to Black women, by nature, we are nurturers; we’re always taking care of somebody else and putting ourselves last,” she says. “But it’s important that we listen to our bodies and not be afraid or ashamed to ask for help and be assertive.”
She adds that when it comes down to something as serious as your health, when you start having concerns, speak up. As Michele says, “you make them listen,” no matter how big or small you might think the ache or ailment is.
Today, Michele is maintaining her health and living her most fulfilled life, despite her condition. She does so by adhering to her doctor’s advice, staying on top of her medications, eating healthy, and staying active.
“Nobody is going to take care of you, but you,” she says. “Especially Black women, because we are always putting our health on the back burner. We have to come out of that mentality. Without us being in good health, nobody else is going to benefit from it, so we have to take care of ourselves right now.”
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