Jodi Pitzen with plaqueAbout midnight after a nice Thanksgiving dinner, Jodi Pitzen began sweating.

“There was nothing I could do to cool off,” she said. “Then I felt a little bit of nausea. I turned on the fan, but nothing was working. I could not stop sweating.”

After getting some water, she headed back to bed and dropped to her knees. She even had a little bit of chest discomfort.

Still, she waited until Monday to see a doctor.

***

Jodi insisted to her primary care physician that she’d only suffered indigestion. Just to make sure, he ran some tests.

An electrocardiogram of her heart came back abnormal. The smoker of 20 years was ordered to take a stress test. She lasted maybe 2 minutes on the treadmill.

A nurse then pushed Jodi in a wheelchair about 100 yards across the medical complex to the hospital for an ultrasound and cardiac catheterization. In that procedure, a doctor inserted a catheter into a large blood vessel leading to Jodi’s heart to take a look at how it was working.Doctors told Jodi, then 41, that she needed an angioplasty … immediately.

Her right coronary artery was 100 percent blocked. Her left anterior descending artery was 95 percent blocked.

A balloon on the tip of a catheter was threaded into her heart and inflated to open blockages. Doctors inserted a total of four mesh-like tubes called stents to prop open Jodi’s arteries.

“I just cheated death by that much,” she said.

***

After three days in the hospital, Jodi headed back to her home in Pleasanton, California.

Although she knew that years of smoking, poor diet and a lack of exercise were to blame for her heart problems, some old habits were hard to break.

She would light a cigarette whenever she sat down at the computer, even without having a craving. After her fourth cigarette, Jodi realized what she was doing.

“I tore up all my cigarettes and dumped them in Clorox,” she said. “I did whatever I had to do to stay away from them.”

She also couldn’t get more because her cardiologist ordered her not to drive for a week, unless it was an emergency.

“I told myself driving to get cigarettes was not an emergency, so I went smoke-free on Dec. 5, 2008,” she said. “It helped me quit smoking, quite honestly.”

Jodi PItzen - survivor shirtCigarette smoking is the most preventable cause of premature death in the United States. It’s one of the six major independent risk factors for coronary heart disease that a person can modify or control. All by itself, smoking cigarettes increases chances of coronary heart disease. When it acts with other factors, it greatly increases risk. Smoking also can increase blood pressure, decrease exercise tolerance and increase the tendency for blood to clot. Anyone who has a family history of heart disease and smokes can be even more at risk.

For Jodi, heart disease does run in the family. Her mother has a pacemaker, and both her grandmother and grandfather on her mom’s side had heart issues. Her dad had open heart surgery and died of heart disease this summer. In fact, Jodi’s mom called with that news a few hours after Jodi was interviewed for this story.

“My day on June 9th went from excitement after talking to you to the worst possible feeling of losing my dad, the man I loved the most,” she wrote. “I don’t know if this is something you want to incorporate into my story or not, but I felt I could share with you that heart disease has taken yet another life.”

***

Once Jodi quit smoking, changing her diet and exercising more were next on her to-do list.

She learned a lot from the American Heart Association website. She has an untold number of AHA cookbooks and found other websites with low-sodium recipes to help her control her blood pressure. She can’t remember the last time she ate fast food.

“I never used to cook before; I didn’t think I had the time to cook,” Jodi said. “I learned to cook instead of smoke.”

Jodi PitzenShe also began exercising. After six months of cardiac rehab, Jodi began a program that trained her for a half marathon in about 14 weeks.

“I met some of the most dedicated people who had never walked a mile, let alone 13.1 miles. So I figured if they could do it, I could,” Jodi said.

She completed her first half-marathon on May 1, 2010. She’s done more than a dozen since then.

“Before my heart attack I’d rather drive to the mailbox than walk,” she said. “Now it’s completely opposite. I like the sense of accomplishment, getting that medal.”

***

Another accomplishment is volunteering with the American Heart Association.

Jodi, an executive assistant at Symantec, has led her company’s efforts at the Bay Area Heart Walk. They have raised approximately $50,000 in pledges the last year five years. Jodi also speaks about lifestyle changes at Go Red For Women events and has championed other anti-smoking measures at her workplace and in the state of California.

The American Heart Association has recognized her turnaround with a Lifestyles Change Award.

“As horrible as a heart attack is, I think it actually saved my life, because I never would have made some of the changes I’ve made,” she said. “I’m very fortunate. Not everyone gets a second chance at life, but I did.”

Jodi is among several former smokers featured in this 2012 video

***

Photos courtesy of Jodi Pitzen

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Do you know a “Story from the Heart” we should tell?

Send an email to stories@heart.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.

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Philanthropists’ devotion straight from the heart, his and hers

Living through a stroke was one thing; now he’s regaining what he lost, inspiring others

After losing teenage son, family promotes CPR training in high school