Amanda Gonzalez with her cardiologist, Lawrence Rosenthal.

Amanda Gonzalez with her cardiologist, Lawrence Rosenthal.

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Amanda Gonzalez was a senior in high school when she found out she had heart disease. She chokes up recalling the surgeries she needed and the things she missed out on in college. Looking back, Gonzalez said she is lucky to be alive.

The 28-year-old was 17 the first time her heart malfunctioned. She had played a softball game that day and fainted while taking a bath after a late night of studying for finals.

Doctors implanted a pacemaker days before Gonzalez started her freshman year at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. But the dangerous heart rhythms continued.

“The palpitations were unbearable,” said Gonzalez, a national spokeswoman for Go Red For Women, the American Heart Association’s heart disease awareness campaign targeted to women. “It felt like I had a monster in my chest that I just couldn’t put to rest.”

She started seeing a new doctor, who changed her medications and told her she needed an implantable cardioverter defibrillator. She had to take medical leave from school to give her heart time to heal.

Gonzalez, who describes herself as a “very type-A personality,” said putting college on hold devastated her because she’s competitive, and graduating from Holy Cross had been a lifelong dream.

Gonzalez was diligent about her cardiac rehabilitation, but the experiences took a mental toll. She became depressed and didn’t want to leave her house because she feared having a heart episode in public. In time, she stopped going to the movies and visiting friends.

Encouraged by her cardiologist, Gonzalez started seeing a therapist. The two professionals played “a huge role in giving me my life back,” she said.

Gonzalez soon went back to Holy Cross. She fulfilled her dream of graduating in May 2011 and works as a photographer and administrative assistant in Worcester.

Her cardiologist Lawrence Rosenthal, M.D., Ph.D., said she deserves all the credit for getting better.

“She’s really risen above a fair amount of adversity for a young person,” said Rosenthal, director of cardiac pacing and electrophysiology at UMass Memorial Medical Center.

Rosenthal said Gonzalez likely has a genetic condition that causes an “electrical storm” in her heart that can lead to sudden cardiac death. The defibrillator protects her by shocking the heart whenever a life-threatening rhythm disturbance occurs. So far, she’s been shocked more than half a dozen times.

Amanda Gonzalez with her brother, Brian Gonzalez.

Amanda Gonzalez with her brother, Brian Gonzalez.

Her younger brother, Brian, said it was hard to watch his once fun-loving and rambunctious sister live in fear of doing things she loved.

“It was a turning point in all of our lives,” said the 25-year-old Massachusetts state trooper. “Our relationship got so much better, to the point we are the best of friends.”

Educating others about the risks of heart disease has become a passion for Gonzalez. She was a healthy eater before she started volunteering for the AHA, but has since become “more inspired to practice what I preach.”

Today, Gonzalez, who loves to cook, said she makes her father’s Cuban picadillo with turkey meat instead of beef. Although she has given up pasta, she’s not willing to give up her guilty pleasure: chocolate.

Volunteering has helped Gonzalez build her confidence and stave off the anxiety that once paralyzed her.

Heart disease “doesn’t mean that it’s the end,” she said.

She encourages people to learn about their family health history, and not ignore — as her own family did — the conditions that affected parents and grandparents.

Gonzalez’s paternal grandfather, who lived with her family, died of a heart attack in his sleep a year before her heart diagnosis. No one thought it was important at the time to get their heart checked or be vigilant about their own heart health. Gonzalez now encourages her parents to take better care of their health.

Gonzalez said heart disease took away a lot in the early days of her diagnosis. But she nevertheless feels “blessed” to have learned so much about heart health and to share that knowledge with women across the country.

“I don’t know who I would be if I didn’t have heart disease,” she said.

Amanda Gonzalez (back row, middle) with fellow Go Red For Women spokeswomen.

Amanda Gonzalez (back row, middle) with fellow Go Red For Women spokeswomen.

Photos courtesy of Amanda Gonzalez and Go Red For Women