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On My Mind: Stefani Spainhower, ‘Go Red for Women’ ambassador

Stefani Spainhower is a "Go Red for Women" ambassador who had heart surgery when she was 32.

“Get involved with ‘Go Red,’ get involved with American Heart. We need to make this a young people’s organization. We need to raise awareness.”

STEFANI SPAINHOWER, 34

American Heart Association ‘Go Red for Women’ ambassador

Stefani Spainhower just celebrated a two-year anniversary, but not the one you might expect. She’s celebrating two years with a fully functioning heart. Spainhower was a 29-year-old nurse practitioner when a conversation with a cardiologist co-worker turned into a diagnosis of congenital heart disease. An avid cyclist, Spainhower was horrified to learn she would not be allowed to exert herself until after valve replacement surgery. Against advice, Spainhower chose to put off the procedure for three years until on Jan. 18, 2011, two days after completing a 75-mile cycling event, Spainhower’s heart failed. After surviving a complicated surgery and lengthy hospital stay, she refocused her career path to help others with similar heart conditions. February is American Heart Month. For more information, including “Go Red” events in Kansas City, visit heart.org.

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Century club: “I completed my first century bike ride five months after my surgery, around Lake Tahoe. My team raised $150,000 for Leukemia & Lymphoma (Society). It was a lot of fun because most of my teammates were riding the ride with me before I found out I had to have surgery. They were in the hospital room visiting me after my surgery, and then we got to finish it off by doing the big event together.”

Giving voice: “For the first two years, I had no desire, no motivation, really, to speak out. People knew that I had surgery, they knew my story, they knew that it was a rough road after my operation. Two years after, I thought, ‘You know what? I’m ready to talk about it. I’m ready to put myself out there and show other people that this is a very serious condition, but is very treatable.’ It’s a very liberating feeling.”

Showing signs: “Crushing chest pain is the most-known symptom (of heart problems), but … that rarely happens, especially in females. You’re just tired a lot, you might be short of breath when you’re climbing the steps, but not extremely. You just don’t feel right. A lot of times you have some dizziness associated. If you have a family history of heart disease, especially a history of young relatives affected by heart disease, you are at risk.”

Doctor’s orders: “How many young people have a primary care doctor, really? I’m just doing mine this week, to be honest with you. I’ve never had one. I’ve always just had my cardiologist. Have a primary care doctor, not just an OB/GYN. We do our yearly (exams), but that’s not a good heart check. Go to a primary care doctor that actually knows what they’re listening for when they check your heart.”

Party hearty: “We’re young, I’m young, I like to go out and do that type of thing. I was diagnosed with heart disease, but I didn’t stop doing it. If you’re going to go out and binge-drink all weekend, that’s what you do, but, during the week, exercise and watch what you’re eating. You have to have a good balance.”

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