While most women wouldn't say they are thankful for having a family history of heart disease, Mary Leah Coco believes knowing her family history and taking it seriously are the only reasons she's actually alive today.
Mary Leah's grandfather died of cardiomyopathy in the late 1970s, before she was born. Then, in 2008, her mother went into atrial fibrillation and was diagnosed with a hole in her heart at age 53. Mary Leah knew she should see a cardiologist too, but she was about to give birth at the time. She promised herself she would do it once she got through the pregnancy. For now, she was just relieved her mother was going to be ok and able to see her granddaughter grow up.
"I cried when my mom was diagnosed because I couldn't imagine raising my daughter without her here," she says. "As scary as it was, that hole in my mom's heart became my saving grace because I actually took time to think about my own health and whether this same thing could happen to me one day."
Two years later, at age 30, Mary Leah finally made good on her promise and visited her mom's doctor. She'd had a few symptoms like lightheadedness, heart palpitations and nausea, but she had assumed these were the result of her busy lifestyle. She was working full time, finishing her Ph.D. and taking care of a toddler, after all. Following several normal results for weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, a test revealed that her heart was enlarged and was only functioning at 10 percent.
"My doctor handed me a tissue before he told me the news," Mary Leah says. "I knew it was very serious."
But this was not the worst news she would receive. After seven months of treatment, she learned that her heart condition had hardly improved. Surgeons implanted a dual chamber defibrillator, or as Mary Leah calls them, "jumper cables for the heart." The defibrillator will restart her heart if necessary, but won't improve the underlying condition. At this point, a heart transplant is inevitable.
Despite her condition - or perhaps because of it - Mary Leah maintains a full and productive life. She completed her Ph.D. six months after her diagnosis and currently teaches at Louisiana State University and is a training director for the State of Louisiana. A long-time athlete, she can't do the intense exercise she used to enjoy, but has found swimming to be a safer activity she can do with her entire family. Her husband, a chef, has changed the way the family eats, preparing only healthy meals that are low in fat and sodium. These changes not only help Mary Leah, but have also helped her husband keep his own cholesterol in check.
"Even though I have this specific condition, I always remind people that you must take care of yourself because most forms of heart disease are preventable," Mary Leah says.
In addition to improving her lifestyle, Mary Leah's time is now focused on her 4-year-old daughter, Annie. She takes life a little slower these days and makes time to talk with Annie in the car, share her favorite movies and relish every dirty fingerprint on her windows because she was around to see them.
"I am very focused on making memories right now," she says. "Everyone has a terminal condition called life, but for me it's a different timeframe if I don't get a new heart. Women need to learn that if you don't take care of yourself, you won't have the opportunity to make memories with your family."
The fact that each generation of Mary Leah's family has suffered from heart disease makes her extra cautious when it comes to her daughter, and she takes her for a cardiac check-up every year.
"I want to be sure she leads as healthy a life as possible starting now," Mary Leah says. "I'm working to create a legacy for her and others because I am alive and not a statistic."