1231-SFTH-Denyse Wilson_Blog

Denyse Wilson was vigilant about her health, working out regularly and active in sports throughout her life. After losing several family members, including her mother to complications from Type 2 diabetes, an aunt to congestive heart failure and her grandmother to stroke, she wanted to do all she could to keep her heart and brain healthy.

Wilson developed Type 2 diabetes 30 years ago, but kept it well managed. She was also diagnosed in her 20s with mitral valve prolapse, a condition in which a valve in her heart doesn’t close correctly.

But in 2012, she began to notice her heart seemed to flutter while she was lying down or she’d feel palpitations while at rest.

“It felt like my heart was racing,” said Wilson, a realtor from Temecula, California.

There were other troubling symptoms: chest discomfort when lying on her left side and shortness of breath after climbing stairs.

Wilson met with a cardiologist and underwent a stress test, which she passed without issues. But the symptoms continued, and she returned to the doctor and wore a Holter monitor to record her heart activity for 48 hours. Again, the test didn’t reveal anything unusual.

“The doctor told me he could tell something was there, but just couldn’t put his finger on it,” Wilson said.

Wilson kept experiencing symptoms and undergoing tests for the next several months. The cause of Wilson’s symptoms finally became clear when a heart imaging scan called a computed tomography angiogram provided doctors a cross-sectional look at her heart.

Denyse Wilson with her husband Steve and son Jordan.

Denyse Wilson with her husband Steve and son Jordan.

Wilson had a hole in the wall that separates her heart’s two upper chambers, a congenital heart defect that had never been detected. The hole, called an atrial septal defect, forced Wilson’s heart to work harder to move blood through the heart’s chambers. Her heart had become enlarged as a result.

She also had a fast heart rate that started in the upper chambers of the heart that was corrected when the hole in her heart was patched.

Congenital heart defects are the most common birth defect, affecting nearly 1 percent, or about 40,000, U.S. births each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As the leading killer of infants with birth defects, CHDs range in severity from simple holes or murmurs to severe malformations, such as the complete absence of one or more heart chambers or valves.

Minor defects may never cause symptoms, while others require treatment within the first days of life.

Wilson was 48 when doctors found her heart defect.

“It was so serious that my doctor told me about the hole on Friday and I had open-heart surgery that Monday,” Wilson said.

Since her recovery, Wilson has devoted herself to raising awareness about heart disease and stroke in her community.

“I share with people, ‘Know your body and the warning signs of heart disease, and if something doesn’t feel right with your body, don’t second-guess yourself,’ ” she said. “Go get it checked out because it could save your life.”

Wilson, now 51, continues to be active, working out with a trainer several times a week and participating in 5K events. She monitors her heart rate during exercise, making sure not to strain her enlarged heart.

“I’m feeling better than I ever did before,” she said. “It was only by God’s grace and mercy that I’m here to tell my story.”

Wilson volunteers at her local American Heart Association, and shares her story at community events. Wilson urges women in particular to seek help if they suspect something is wrong. She frequently has people confide in her following a presentation that they’ve had similar symptoms.

As chair of the AHA’s 2016 Southwest Riverside County Heart & Stroke Walk, Wilson will walk with other heart disease survivors on New Year’s Day in the 2016 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California.

“You have to be your own advocate,” she said. “If I hadn’t been persistent and kept going to the doctor for more tests, I wouldn’t be here today.”

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Photos courtesy of Denyse Wilson