Congenital Heart Disease Survivor, Age 23, Louisville, KY
Regan Judd was a young, energetic college athlete who learned the hard way that heart disease does not discriminate. Her story is a cautionary tale to all women that listening to your body and seeking help when necessary is important at any age.
Excited to be entering her junior year in college, Regan was in the middle of her dance team practice when she experienced chest pains and shortness of breath. Having danced her whole life and not wanting to look weak in front of her coach and fellow teammates, she attributed the symptoms to being out of shape due to the summer break.
But even after practice, the symptoms persisted - and got worse. "I really thought I could sleep away the pain, but it became unbearable," Regan says.
Though her mother was adamant about her going to the emergency room, it wasn't until Regan received a firm phone call from her father that she decided to go to the emergency room.
"I now know that I should have taken it much more seriously," she says.
Regan knew she'd had a heart murmur since birth, so she quickly dismissed the doctor when he brought it up.
"I told him the murmur was functional and I had been living with it for years," she says. "I was annoyed when he recommended I see a cardiologist right away. I just wanted to get on with my life and back to my dance team since the school year was about to start."
Little did she know, her junior year of college would need to be postponed. What she assumed would be a quick visit to the cardiologist turned into a four-hour ordeal. She was diagnosed with a rare congenital heart defect that was causing a severe leaking heart valve and enlarged heart. Her only choice to repair the damage was open-heart surgery. Just 19 years old at the time, Regan found the news completely devastating. The doctors told her it was just a matter of time before she would have become a statistic.
"I began crying immediately," she says. "I kept thinking of my grandpa because he had open heart surgery when I was a kid. But he was so much older than me that I just couldn't grasp it."
Six weeks after her initial visit, Regan underwent open-heart surgery at the age of 20. Though her heart was successfully repaired, she had to take the semester off of school and went home to be with her family and begin the long rehab process.
For Regan, rehab not only included rebuilding her physical strength, but also her emotional strength. Her college life had been abruptly interrupted, and everyone around her seemed to be going on with their lives and having fun without her.
"I hated Facebook during that time," she says. "I was stuck at home recovering from this ordeal and all I could see were photos of people doing all the things I wanted to be doing."
Once back at school, the recovery process continued. And because Regan was so young, the idea of heart disease was very abstract to her friends.
"My friends thought I was back to normal, but I was still recovering in many ways," says Regan. "It was hard to explain that I was tired and needed time to adjust."
Determined to make up for lost time, Regan eventually rejoined her dance team and managed to finish college in just four years - an amazing feat considering she had taken a full semester off. After graduation, her life-changing experience and healthcare knowledge made her a natural fit for a job at a medical communications firm.
Regan attributes much of her success to the support network she found in other survivors. She has volunteered for local American Heart Association fundraisers and lobbied lawmakers in Washington, D.C. for more heart disease research funding.
"This work is so important because people don't look at heart disease as something that young people have - especially young women," Regan says. "I think it helps being a younger face for this cause. I always tell people that I was healthy, a dancer and doing all the right things, but I still had heart disease. It can truly happen to anyone."