Real Woman Alumni 2018-2019 Mika Leah

Though fit, 33-year-old California woman had 98 percent blockage in main coronary artery.

A lifelong fitness enthusiast, Mika Leah was celebrating her 33rd birthday with a hike when she was out of breath and exhausted after one mile.

She’d already stopped twice to rest and felt pain shooting down her left arm and intense pressure in her chest. Her hiking partner — overweight and a smoker — hadn’t even broken a sweat.

“That’s when I realized something was seriously wrong,” she said.

Turns out, Leah had been experiencing heart-related symptoms for a year.

Two months after her daughter Mila was born, Leah ran her first half-marathon. A few weeks after the race, while jogging, she experienced chest pains and shortness of breath and then vomited. Thinking she’d caught a bug, she returned home. The symptoms went away. But when she ran the next day, the symptoms returned.

“I couldn’t make it past two miles, but I kept trying to push past the pain because that’s what you are trained to do as an athlete,” Leah said.

She had shared her family history of heart disease with her doctor, but her EKG results were normal. Leah accepted the doctor’s diagnosis that her symptoms were due to stress. After all, she had two kids under age 2, was going through a divorce and had a stressful job.

But the symptoms didn’t go away. So she returned to the doctor several times that year, and each time her symptoms were misdiagnosed as stress.

She’d had enough. Her father had a heart attack at 32 and struggled with heart disease, and she feared she may have the same fate. “So I went back to the doctor and asked for a cardiology referral and said, ‘I’m not taking no for an answer,’” she said.

A stress test revealed Leah had significant blockages. She quickly underwent a catheterization procedure that revealed a 98 percent blockage in her left main artery. Doctors placed three

stents to reopen her arteries, followed by two other stents two years later. She also had angioplasty twice.

Looking back, Leah didn’t recognize the heart-related symptoms because her dad had experienced different ones. Women who have heart attacks may have subtler, less recognizable symptoms than men, such as pain or discomfort in the stomach, jaw, neck or back, nausea and shortness of breath.

“If I realized that heart disease could happen to a young, fit female, I would have pushed for a stress test a year earlier,” Leah said. “My intuition was telling me that whole time that something was wrong, but I was focused on taking care of everyone else.”

Now 41, living in Irvine, California, Leah occasionally experiences angina and seeks medical care right away if the pain doesn’t subside shortly after taking medication.

Leah has redoubled her efforts to eat smart and be active — things she’s done since the third grade when her dad had his first heart attack.

Physical activity not only ensures women live longer and healthier but also improves risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

She’s also reducing stress and advocating for herself when it came to her medical care by developing good relationships with her doctors.

Leah kept her heart disease to herself for years, afraid to admit she had a weakness. Knowing she may one day require a heart bypass, now she’s raising awareness about heart disease in women to encourage them to identify symptoms and take action.

Read Mila's article: California family dances their way to heart health