Have Heart Disease? Don't Be Afraid to Get Help or Ask Questions

Growing up in Los Angeles, I never enjoyed physical activity as a child. I got tired quickly and always seemed out of breath.

I figured it was because I was "chubby."

Actually, it was because my heart was struggling with a rare congenital heart defect that prevented my heart from moving blood efficiently between my chambers.

By the time I was 23, my condition was worsening. I gained 20 pounds in three days, had lost my appetite and was very pale. And although I was never comfortable with exercise, now I could barely walk a block without becoming short of breath.

A week later, I went to the emergency room and was diagnosed with severe pulmonary hypertension.

Additional testing over the next several weeks revealed I had a congenital heart defect that prevented my heart from working efficiently called cor triatriatum, or a heart with three atria, and news that I'd need open-heart surgery right away.

But I didn't have insurance and couldn't afford the surgery. I didn't know where to go or how to navigate the intricacies of the healthcare system. With the support and help of social workers and my doctors over the next two months, I was able to enroll in a plan available through the Affordable Care Act and have the surgery.

I'm still going through recovery, as doctors work to manage arrhythmia and fluid retention around my heart. During the last two years, I have learned a lot about how to protect my heart for the future, including how to read food labels to avoid things with high sodium or sugar, and how to use seasonings to add flavor to recipes, rather than fat or salt.

The experience has taught me to take more control of my health. I now ensure to get the right treatment, have access to insurance and I'm not afraid to ask questions if something doesn't seem right, or if I don't understand everything.

Don't just brush things off. Ask for help or even an interpreter to make sure you understand information. I also like to encourage other women to not be afraid and tell them "you're not alone."

"There are lots of medications and technology out there, thanks in part to the American Heart Association's investment in cardiovascular research, that can help you live a normal life, so don't be afraid."