Amy Nartatez Heinl doesn't run every day because it's good for her heart, she runs because she can, and because it symbolizes overcoming a major obstacle in her life. For only three months after having emergency surgery to repair a torn artery, she competed in a 5K.
"The goal was to run the entire race and finish," Amy says. "I knew if I could do that, I could show people that you can fully recover and go on to live a healthy life with heart disease. My sister was with me and competed in the half marathon that day. She said what I did was more inspiring and courageous than any race she has ever completed."
A busy executive and mother of three young boys, Amy spent several years on the move. But one day, during an early-morning workout doing light weights, she started to experience chest pain and shortness of breath. Unable to shake it, she collapsed and her friend called 9-1- 1.
Upon arriving at the hospital, Amy was rushed into surgery to repair an artery that had torn 2 1⁄2 inches. Later, doctors determined she'd experienced a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD), a rare condition that strikes younger women and can result in sudden death.
"I really couldn't believe this happened to me, and my heart was the last thing on my mind," Amy says. "I thought of myself as a healthy person, and I was exercising when it happened. I truly believed I had pulled a muscle."
Following a successful surgery, Amy began the long journey toward recovery. Though she was accustomed to a busy and active lifestyle, the cardiac rehab process began with a few simple steps on a treadmill — which was not an easy adjustment. But before she knew it, she was competing in a race.
During her recovery period, Amy took stock of her family's lifestyle and made changes to ensure her kids would grow up as healthy as possible.
"I still have that occasional glass of wine or slice of pizza," she says. "But I've really prioritized health in our family."
Perhaps the biggest change since her diagnosis is one that many women find the most difficult: taking more time for herself each day.
"I was always on the go with work. My kids and I think I had to go through this struggle to wake up and realize that things in my life needed to change," she says. "I hope my story will lead other people to focus on taking care of themselves and know the risk factors for heart disease so that something like this does not happen to them."
Given the high fatality rate from her condition, she feels especially lucky that she is still here and can share her experience with others.
"I tell my story because I am actually alive to tell it," she says. "I want to show other women that heart disease can happen to anyone, but you can survive it. I'm proof of that."