‘I was given the gift of a heart attack at age 35’

Matthew Strother

February 21, 2014

Eliz Greene was 35 years old and about to deliver twin girls on Nov. 12, 2000, when she started having chest pains, then her heart stopped.

She was resuscitated and taken to surgery, where doctors identified a tear in her atria that could only be fixed with open-heart surgery. To avoid the risk of harming the babies, they were delivered by Cesarean section and doctors then immediately operated on Greene’s heart, performing a bypass.

Thursday, more than 13 years after the incident, the Milwaukee resident took the stage at the Callaway Conference Center at West Georgia Technical College for the annual Heart Truth for Women Luncheon to tell her story and road to recovery. The event – sponsored by West Georgia Health, CB&T, Emory Clark-Holder Clinic, Heart of West Georgia and West Georgia Physicians – focuses on women’s heart health.

Greene’s message was dealing with stress. She characterized it as a juggling act, with the three main balls that everyone juggles as work, family and self. For many people, self often gets overlooked in favor of the other two factors, which leads to additional stress, which affects heart health.

She noted other things get tossed into the juggling act as well: Shiny balls – a project you take on that may not be necessary and ends up being very time-consuming; bowling balls – something that takes up much more than the other “balls” of work, family and self; and chainsaws – unexpected events like an illness, death or relationship problem. She said when those extras are thrown in, make sure to always be willing to accept or ask for help if needed, and accept that it’s OK to re-prioritize and recognize that some things won’t be done the same way.

Greene said she had to deal with recovery from her cardiac arrest and bypass surgery while also taking on the task of being a new mother to twin girls. After completing cardiac rehabilitation, she was expected to complete cardiac exercises every day, but after full days of trying to tackle cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping and other household necessities with the additional task of caring for her newborns, she found herself without the energy to exercise, and felt too overburdened to make time for it.

A turning point came when her husband told her that she wasn’t doing what she needed to in order to get better. When she countered with a list of all the things she needed to do that precluded her exercise, her husband told her that none of that mattered if she wasn’t around – there would be no family without her.

“In that little flash, I saw all of the things that I wanted to experience with my family,” Greene said. “I wanted to see those babies grow up … I want to dance with my husband at their weddings, I want to welcome their children to the world and I want to hold my husband’s hand and watch the sun set, day after day after day.”

She said there are many ways to be active without necessarily jumping on an exercise bike. Keeping track of your movements and staying moving during everyday tasks can help supplement activity.

She added that her family is her reason for getting fit again after her surgery and striving to stay healthy. She told the crowd to find their “why” to make it worth committing to a lifestyle change for better heart health.

“I was given the gift of a heart attack at age 35,” Greene said. “I know that’s not something I can take that for granted. I have to do the work to get there.”