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Health and Fitness

Heart To Heart

Discovering strength when you feel your weakest

My day started like any other at Great Lakes Naval Station. I went to work and decided to use my lunch break to work out.

I did some stretches then jumped on the elliptical and turned up my music to get "into the zone." Not long into my workout I began to feel funny. Suddenly, everything went black. The next thing I knew I was on the floor, there were people standing around me and I didn't feel right. My arms and legs were tingling and I couldn't catch my breath.

After about a month, I was sitting in the cardiologist office at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center (FHCC) in north Chicago. At this point I had laughed off what I thought was your typical "fainting because I was exhausted" episode and figured the cardiologist visit was just a precaution and they weren't going to find anything-- after all-- I had no family history of heart disease and this had been happening for 10 years in the Navy. I would occasionally pass out and then wake up and be fine about 20 minutes later. Nonetheless, the echocardiogram (ECHO) technician ran some tests and took some pictures of my heart. I remember thinking to myself, "I have no idea what this guy is looking at, but why does he keep zooming in on the same part of my heart?" When the Tech finished taking pictures they sent me back to the doctor's office to wait for the results.

I recall telling my Mom, this feels like that moment in the movies where everything gets quiet and they start playing a really sad song then the doctor comes in to give the bad news." - Kelsey Gumm

No sooner did I say that, the doctor came in. "Petty Officer Gumm," he said, "I don't know how to tell you this but, your career in the Navy is over." He then explained that my ECHO showed a very rare heart disease that only .5 percent of the worldwide population has - Left Ventricular Non-Compaction Cardiomyopathy. He explained that my fainting episode was most likely a sudden cardiac arrest and that the force from hitting the floor likely and thankfully jolted my heart out of a fatal rhythm.

My questions seemed endless. How do I react to life changing news like this? How do I "LIVE" with heart disease that has already tried to kill me? I went through different stages of grief and anger. Angry that my career in the military was over so soon. I had served 10 years honorably and was going to be eligible for chief petty officer soon. Besides angry, I was scared. I was afraid that I was going to die despite the doctor telling me that my heart function was still good and that they wanted to continue to monitor me. I was confused and wanted to know what the next steps were. All I knew about heart disease was what I saw in movies and on TV and what I could find on Google, the WRONG place to be looking!

Three photos starting from the left: Gumm posing for a two photos while out to sea; Gumm during her re-enlistment.

I soon began wearing a heart monitor to see if I had more fatal rhythms also known as Ventricular Tachycardia (VTACH). After a couple of days wearing my monitor, I received a call from my doctor who needed to see me immediately. I knew that wasn't good. The doctor told me that I had an episode of VTACH in during which my heart had gone from 60 beats per minute to 188 beats in a split second! He then prescribed me a LIFEVEST. The LIFEVEST is an external device that is like an automated external defibrillator (AED) that I would wear until they installed an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD). An ICD is a battery-powered device placed under the skin that keeps track of your heart rate. Thin wires connect the ICD to your heart and if an abnormal heart rhythm is detected the device will deliver a small electric shock to restore a normal rhythm.

I did eventually receive an ICD and was medically retired from the Navy Dec. 28, 2014. Afterward, my cardiologist asked if I would be interested in leading a support group for women with heart disease through WomenHeart: the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease. As a woman living with this chronic and life-threatening condition, I know first hand the importance of support and camaraderie in helping me to live healthfully and to cope. In October 2015, after attending the WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, I became a WomenHeart Support Network Coordinator. Each year since 2002, 40 women survivors of heart disease gather to be trained to become volunteer community educators and Support Network Coordinators in an effort to help women live heart-healthy lives and receive the support they need to do so. A recent survey of patients who participated in WomenHeart support network meetings indicated that:

* 93 percent felt their quality of life has been enhanced
* 85.3 percent have improved their ability to communicate with their health care provider
* 93 percent have increased their understanding of heart disease
* 85.6 percent believe that attending meetings has helped them deal with challenges in maintaining their treatment/medication regimen
* 86.2 percent believe attending meetings has helped them better communicate and explain their heart disease with family members, friends, co-workers, etc.

Three photos from left to right: with shipmates; profile picture for WomenHeart Champions; wearing flight deck gear.

Heart disease is the leading killer for women and can be a very emotionally and physically isolating condition for women. The national network of WomenHeart Champions leading support networks in local communities enables women to have the camaraderie and support they need to make the lifestyle changes necessary to live a heart-healthy life. More than 650 women have become national volunteer WomenHeart Champions. These inspirational women from across the country are the "boots on the ground" in the fight against heart disease and are available to speak to community, state, and national audiences about the prevalence of heart disease among women and how it is so often under diagnosed and mistreated.

I became the first WomenHeart Champion to lead support groups at a Federal Health Care Center and have the ability to reach out to more women in the active duty, veteran, retired, and dependent military community. To be able to give back to a hospital that has helped me survive and thrive is a phenomenal experience. It is important that young healthy women realize that heart disease can affect them as well as older women. This diagnosis could have been something that had a devastating and negative change in my life. Instead, I have used the same feelings and emotions to help other women in a similar situation. No woman should have to face the journey of heart disease alone and I am so glad to have the opportunity to support my military family.

All Hands Magazine photo illustration for Unbroken Spirit story.