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Lisa Cox is CardioSmart

Triathlete Lisa Cox was on a routine run with friends when she went into sudden cardiac arrest. As a survivor, she now stresses the importance of knowing your family history and prevention.

As a triathlete, the only cardiovascular risk factor that applied to Lisa Cox was family history. Cox's father had a quadruple bypass at age 67 and six of her mother’s siblings had heart disease.

Lisa ran in one of her favorite races, the Tallahassee Ultra Distance Classic, just six months after undergoing a double-bypass.

If you have a family history, no matter what your fitness, you should be aggressive about your care and talk to your doctor...

Lisa Cox: Heart Disease Patient

What is your CardioSmart story?

On June 4, 2012, my friends, Mike and Jamie, knocked on my door and invited me to run with them. We are all triathletes and enjoy training together. We were running a familiar route that takes us past the home of a couple who are also triathletes. They usually put a water cooler out in their driveway for the runners in the Monday night group. We stopped for a drink, and I bent down to pet one of Robert’s dogs. When I stood back up, I felt faint. This is when I went into sudden cardiac arrest—my heart stopped beating. Jamie is a nurse and recognized what was happening immediately and began CPR. Robert called 911, several responders arrived and I was transported to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital. I woke up in the ambulance completely unaware of the seriousness of what had just happened. Jamie had just saved my life. Statistics show that only about 5 percent of out-of-hospital sudden cardiac arrest victims live through the experience, and I am one of them. You must receive care immediately, and you have about five minutes to act when someone goes into arrest.

After a nuclear stress test and a heart catheterization, my medical team found that I had 99.9 percent blockage in a main artery and 80 percent blockage in a second artery. I had a double-bypass on June 7, 2012.

Of the nine risk factors listed by the American Heart Association, only one applies to me. I do not have a history of high cholesterol or high blood pressure. I am not overweight nor do I have diabetes. I don’t smoke and I am physically active. Being 47 and female, I do not fit the profile of the majority of heart patients. My one risk factor is heredity. My father had a quadruple bypass at age 67 and six of my mother’s siblings had heart disease, for which they had bypass surgeries or died.  My mother’s father also died of a heart attack.

I think that some things in life happen for a reason. I run by myself a lot. It was unusual that my friends would drop by like they did. If I had been alone on this day, I probably would not have survived. Jamie had just completed her recertification class the week before this happened. Everything lined up to give me the best chance of survival, and I am grateful. I think of how scary it must have been for my friends that night and I would never put them in that position had I known that I was sick. But I am so grateful and proud of them for protecting me and helping me. I am grateful to my doctors and my whole medical team for their expertise and care. I am grateful to my family who has been here with me every day to love me. And I am so grateful that I am here for them. I will never be able to repay any of the beautiful, loving people who are responsible for my being alive, but I can pay it forward by trying to help someone else.

A lot of emotion and thoughts have flooded my head since this happened and there have been many conversations and positive changes for me and others as a result of my experience. I now follow a heart-healthy pescatarian diet. I have lost 30 pounds and, although I wasn’t overweight before, I am leaner and feel great. I recently had a VAP blood test done so that a local lipidologist can possibly learn more about my condition that will help me and/or others. We had a training session at my house and five of us including my son, Austin, received our CPR certification. The Gulf Winds Track Club has held a CPR informational meeting and demonstration, and they paid half of the certification fees for our members to become certified. I walked four times a day, starting the day after I came home from the hospital. Once I was cleared to run again I began training and I registered for the Tallahassee 50K, which took place on December 8, 2012. It is a race I have run twice and won the master’s women’s award the first time in 2009. This was exactly six months and one day after my bypass. What I would like for others to think about is that action is important—it can be the difference between life and death. We should all know CPR. What a gift if someone needs us. If you have a family history, no matter what your fitness, you should be aggressive about your care and talk to your doctor about extra testing as a preventative. I am so happy to be alive, and I am eager to do anything I can to help others with heart disease.

What does it mean to you to be CardioSmart?

To me, being CardioSmart means I am doing all that is in my power to be the healthiest I can be and to be fully engaged in my care, while always seeking information to help me and my family stay healthy, even with my heart disease. As is the case with all life experiences, I am learning from my heart event and using my knowledge to help others and move in a positive direction. I am very lucky to live through cardiac arrest and I would like to prevent others from that experience if at all possible.

As a coronary artery disease patient, what motivated you to keep going day in and day out when things were tough?

I have been a runner most of my life and began training as a triathlete in 2008. I enjoyed completing the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon in 2010. I ran the Boston Marathon in 2011. I raced local races almost every weekend in recent years and won many accolades as a result of my healthy lifestyle. I tell you this to help you understand that I felt strong. I had no notable symptoms. I thought I was doing everything right. Many of us in the Gulf Winds running and triathlon community were shocked that this happened to me.

I was very lucky to be healthy and fit before this happened. I believe being fit helped me beat the odds and live. I'll have to say there weren't too many days that I felt down or bad. Because I had so many friends who walked with me and came forward for all sorts of help, I have had a very positive outlook through the whole experience. I think knowing there was actually a physical (but fixable) reason I wasn't feeling like myself was actually a relief because with surgery, the problem (my blockages) was fixed and I could focus on getting better.

My son, Austin, and daughter, Sara, have been so wonderful, and I am so proud of them. Their dad, Melvin, has always been supportive and was there during my surgery and hospital stay. He remains my friend and is always there for me. My brother Phillip came and helped me through my surgery, and my brother Steve was too far away to be here but supported me with phone calls and love. My running/triathlon club, Gulf Winds, provided meals, flowers and anything else I needed. My friends Jamie and Carla were there almost every day during my recovery. I am very lucky.

Have you maintained a relationship with your cardiologist?

My cardiologist is Wayne Batchelor, MD, FACC, with Southern Medical Group, which is affiliated with Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare in Tallahassee, FL. I am trying to learn as much as I can about my disease. I feel it is my responsibility to share my experience because I thought I was doing everything right by living a healthy lifestyle, and I found out in a dramatic way that my heart was very sick. I have enrolled in a PRE-DETERMINE study through Dr. Batchelor’s office, which is conducted by the Brigham and Women’s Hospital – Harvard Medical School, so that we can learn more about those of us who are prone to cardiac arrest. He is the director of research, so I am interested in learning as much as I can from him. Being an athlete and only 47, I am different from many of his patients, and he has been great to take that into account while advising me about my care. We spoke together at the Florida State University Alpha Phi Red Dress Gala in October, and I am looking forward to other opportunities with him to share my story and raise awareness about heart disease. 

How did you feel running a long distance race just six months after your bypass?

The Tallahassee Ultra Distance Classic is a favorite race of mine. I LOVED being out on the course with all of my friends who have been there with me on this journey. The Gulf Winds Track and Triathlete Clubs are two wonderful groups of friends who train together and look out for each other, so it was encouraging to be there. I only had 16 weeks to prepare from when Dr. Batchelor cleared me to run, so the maximum mileage I built up to was 18 miles. I was doing well through the 18 miles—running faster than I had the two previous times I completed this race. But, at 18 miles, I had some stomach issues and it became very challenging. I knew this may happen. I’m still adjusting to my new pescatarian diet, and some of the medicines I now take affect my stomach. I completed the race with lots of love and support from my friends, and I am so grateful to be running again. I look forward to next year!  My next long race is the Tallahassee Marathon in February.

Since your risk factor was heredity and you have children, what are you teaching them about being aware of their own heart health?

I have talked to Dr. Batchelor about this, and he has recommended that my children have cholesterol panels annually, starting at age 18. They should keep their BMI at 25 or less and exercise for 30 minutes, five times a week. Of course we all benefit from a healthy diet and I have stressed this to them, but they were eating pretty well before this happened to me. I have been documenting my experience with my disease and gathering as much information and records so that it will be available to my children and they can make smart choices about their health and have their hereditary risk laid out for them. Since six of my mother's seven siblings and her father have had bypass surgery or died from a heart event and my father had a quadruple bypass, I have documented the ages and details of those events also. Hopefully, we will know more about this disease as they get older, and they can reduce their risk of having heart disease by being CardioSmart.

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