HOME PLACE - Heart attack catches healthy, busy woman off guard

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Fran Anderson bears about as little resemblance to a heart attack survivor as one can look.

At 63, the U.S. Bank executive is trim and her smile is one of a much younger woman. Her desk job keeps her sedentary, but her walk is brisk. She moves with the confidence of someone comfortable in her own skin.

Fran simply doesn't fit the visual profile -- the person we all want to point at and think "I'm not that bad, so I'm safe."

But underneath the youthful face, Fran's genetics were gearing up for years. Her mother's entire family had wrestled with heart issues, she knew. Nonetheless, the Milton-Freewater woman thought she'd dodged the bullet, Fran said last week.

"I didn't think it would really happen to me. I knew it was there and thought if I did things right and take care of myself ..."

Last December, however, those genes came calling, just before the bank opened. Here is Fran's memory of what came next:

"I'm on the phone with a coworker, enjoying banter about work and how we could do things so much better if we were in charge.

"I begin noticing that breathing is becoming a problem. I say goodbye and think, 'Just get outside and some fresh air.'

"But before I go any farther, I feel chest pain and what is this shooting pain going down my arm? I suddenly become smarter than I would believe and realize this has to be a heart attack.

"I call 911 and tell them what is happening and that I have to get off the phone so I can open the door for the ambulance that's coming. What makes me feel so in charge of such a situation? My parents have both died and neither made it to the hospital.

"Within minutes the ambulance arrives -- I'm lucky to live in a small town. I even know the people who are there to help me. Then they locked the door for me at work and got me on my way. For some reason I will never know, at this time I was void of fear. The people taking care of me had things in order and I was able to breathe.

"I am remembering back to being a senior in high school and my dad calmly calling me from bed to get me up. I am not really sure how it all went, but my mother was having a heart attack. She was just over 50 years old and I was 18.

"We lived out of town 10 miles, which seemed like a very long way then. The ambulance arrived and I was to ride with my mother and my dad was driving the car to the hospital. I don't remember being scared, just that my biggest fear was losing her on the way to the hospital. I held her hand and felt her head all the way there."

Fran paused here, reliving that day. "From the emotions I'm feeling writing this, the impact must have been more than I ever imagined," she said.

"I am the oldest of six children, and I guess that is why it was my place to be in the ambulance. My dad was always a careful driver and never broke a speed limit that I recall. On that night, he beat the ambulance to the hospital, and it felt like forever getting there from my perspective in the back of the ambulance. The nearest hospital was about 20 miles away. I have no other memory of that night."

She has a much better idea now of what her mother must have been feeling then, Fran explained.

"My stay in the hospital was one day here and two nights in Kennewick. My daughter and son-in-law were able to come over from Seattle, as well as my precious grandchild -- and they could all visit. We've come a long way in knowing the importance of family being able to lift spirits in a way no other can. I feel bad that my mother did not get that comfort."

Fran has no memory of overwhelming fear, she said. "It was a little tense when I was going in to have a stent put in, but it was such a short period of time to get my head around what had happened. I was very tired, going from tests to an angioplasty to knowing a stent needed to be placed for a blockage of 95 percent in the main artery in my heart ... then another ride in an ambulance to Kennewick, with my husband following behind.

"I can only imagine what he had been through that day. We live our lives separately but together. We have been married 41 years and are still in love as we have always been. I work here and he works more than three hours away. We've been doing so for more than five years.

"During all this time we speak every day and see each other every week in one way or another with one of us doing driving duty.

"This day, he gets the 'heart attack' call at work. He hit the road with three hours to think about it. By the time we were settled finally in, it was about midnight. My husband slept on a chair in the room that night, after beginning his day at 4:30 a.m. But so comforting to have him by my side.

"The next afternoon the stent was put in and I was feeling fine other than some superficial pain. By the next evening my husband could take me home, on his birthday, as it turned out. Taking me home was his gift, he said. What a great guy."

Once home, Fran knew change had to come. "My diet would have to undergo changes, my exercise routine would have to begin somehow and now I was afraid I might die. I didn't know how to talk about it and I am usually great at talking -- my entire life had changed in one moment," she recalled.

The December first was a new start and perspective, Fran explained. "We just go skipping along through life, sure that things happen to other people, not us or our family. So where do I go from here? I have this picture of my arteries clogged with this stuff that I have been putting in for years. How do I get this all better?"

Fran has become hungry for knowledge. She's collecting recipe books from the American Heart Association's list and trying to sort out the often-conflicting medical information out there, she said. "I feel pretty strongly now that I really should have taken this much more seriously earlier in my life, but there is no going back now. Going forward I hope to do what is best for my health. I now realize how difficult it is to eat right in this world of ours. Remove fast foods and desserts and what do you have? Not much for a lot of people. I'm willing to do what I need to in order to avoid another heart attack. There are many people walking around who have had multiple stents, open heart surgery and some with both. Some are convinced that if they take their medicine they'll be fine. I am not."

She exercises and makes new food choices, she said. "I'm past the point of being 'frozen scared' about what I need to do. It has made my life fuller to know that I have a second chance to get a few things right that I may not have realized before the heart attack.

"We all have different experiences and need to make the most of those. I hope some of my dreams and aspirations become reality."

I hope so, too, Fran. We all do.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom or by calling 509-526-8322.

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