Like many women, Rachel D'Souza-Siebert's life is a delicate balancing act between family, work and somehow taking time for her health. But unlike others, Rachel was forced to learn the importance of this balance in a time that should've been solely filled with joy: shortly after the birth of her first child.
Less than a week after returning home from the hospital with her newborn son, Rachel had to return - but this time she was in the emergency room. The excitement about her new baby was quickly replaced with fear and anxiety as doctors scrambled to diagnose the cause of the extreme pain in her chest, under her shoulder blades and down the backs of her arms.
"My husband was signing consent forms, while I was wheeled into the cath lab and nurses and doctors seemed to be running everywhere," she remembers.
The diagnosis was a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD) followed by a heart attack. Rachel was 28 years old.
"All I could think was: this doesn't happen to people like me, it happens to old, unhealthy people," she says.
As doctors tried to understand and explain this sudden event, they asked Rachel if she was a smoker or drinker, and if she had a family history of heart disease. Her answer to every single question was "no."
"It took over four hours for doctors to officially diagnose me," she says.
Even to this day, her experience is somewhat mysterious. SCAD is a relatively new, rare and misdiagnosed, and the overwhelming majority of those who have a SCAD event don't live through it. But one thing doctors are sure of is that by taking care of herself prior to the event, Rachel dramatically increased her chances of survival.
"They told me that if I hadn't been exercising or if I had an underlying health condition such as high cholesterol that was causing blockages, I may not have lived," says Rachel.
Her adoption of heart-healthy lifestyle habits made recovery easier as well, and weeks of challenging cardiac rehab only strengthened her resolve to continue a regular exercise routine. But still, like many women who are working and raising children, she finds the balance difficult.
"It's hard to work full time, spend quality time with my son, eat well at every meal and find the time to exercise," she says. "As women, we need to learn where to draw the line so we can take care of ourselves too."
Rachel's struggle to find balance inspired her to start writing a blog about her experience. Meeting other survivors and joining a national support group has also helped with healing, especially after doctors advised against another pregnancy.
"That's always going to be the hardest part for me," she says. "But I've talked to other survivors and women who can't have children, and I've learned that there are other ways of completing your family. My husband and I actually talked about adoption years ago, and now it's not just a viable option for us - it's our only choice."
Through her blog and volunteer work, Rachel hopes to share her experience with as many people as possible because she remembers how scared and lonely she felt.
"I know what it's like to sit in an ICU and wonder: What now?" she says. "I've struggled with the same things as so many other women, like making time to cook healthy and exercise. But I plan on thriving for years to come and enjoying a healthy life with my family, and I want to share that hope for the future with others."