Lori Sepich, 58, turned off her car but sat in the parking lot. Her first day back at the gym was terrifying.
It was three months after her second heart attack, which happened only a few weeks into a new job. It was a family history of heart disease and years of smoking that landed her in the hospital again.
Heart rehab is a difficult process for many, especially physical activity, but Lori considers exercise to be therapy.
However, she still needed a pep talk before getting up the courage to work out again. “I sat in the car thinking, ‘I could die doing this… or I could die not doing this.’”
Lori has a history of being active. In high school, she was an all-conference track and field athlete and set the record for the girls shot put.
“My dad was so proud,” she says. “And my mom just cried.”
Even though she was an impressive athlete, she had health issues back then. At 17, she went to the doctor for chronic headaches and fatigue and was diagnosed with hypertension. After her first heart attack in 2005, she was then diagnosed with a form of coronary artery disease, or small vessel disease, that restricts the amount of oxygen-rich blood flowing to the heart, causing damage to the heart walls and painful heart spasms.
Lori pushed through. She stopped smoking, took her medication regularly, and started teaching spin classes at the DeSoto Athletic Club; the YMCA; and the Jewish Community Center. She earned the nickname Spinderella by her friends.
“Teaching really taught me that fitness comes in many packages and all levels,” Lori says. “The most important thing is to embrace yours. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the role that exercise has played in my life.”
Lori says working out has made her mentally stronger as well.
“I got really lucky because my cardiologist cared enough about my mental health to ask me if I was suffering from depression. When I finally broke down and admitted it, instead of blaming me he said, ‘Let’s do something about it.’”
Both small vessel disease and depression are more common among female heart patients. And according to the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women program, up to 33% of heart attack patients end up developing some degree of depression. However, women who are physically active have a lower risk of depression and cognitive decline.
“No one expects to have a heart attack,” says Lori. “But when life happens, you can lose control or gain it. Denial is when the worst damage happens, all it does is put off a solution.”
Lori didn’t have the resources and information that is so readily available now when she was diagnosed with high blood pressure in high school. Now there is a community of survivors and caretakers that meet either in person or online to share tips and encouragement.
“The first time I went to the Go Red for Women luncheon, I was dreading it,” says Lori. “I didn’t know what to expect. But it taught me that I did have a story. I was a survivor.”
“The journey of heart disease will never be over for me. But I get to choose how I face it. And that’s the power of survivors. My doctor asked me to always share the parts of the story that aren’t pretty. Share when we deny things and put off asking for help and when we don’t face the hard things we should… Because that’s what helps people—the ugly, not the perfect.”
This Heart Month, Lori recommends taking the next step to be more active, “and sometimes that just means getting out of the car.”
By Libby Perry
Photo by Tindall Stephens