Invited

Invitations… who knew that there were so many different kinds.  I mean I know about fonts.  I like to play with fonts at work, and one important person where I work even decided that we all had to switch to “hoefler” text as soon as she started her in her position (I now use this font all the time...).  I suppose it was her way of putting her mark on the place.  But as we sat there browsing through one invite after the next my eyes started to glaze over.  I clearly knew what I did not want, but how could I even begin to decide what I wanted?  I started thinking that there was no way in hell that I was going to spend money when it came to invitations.  I could just draw something up, maybe use a little photoshop, throw it in “iPhoto” and be done with the whole thing.  And then I spoke to Christi, and she said that was not going to happen.  She started to talk about the different kinds of paper and embossing and the tissue paper that overlays the invites and the reception cards and the lining of the envelope, etc. etc…  I started to feel a bit ill.  I saw the dollar signs increasing monumentally in my head as she spoke, and as far as tissue went, the only tissue that would be involved in my wedding would be there for people to wipe their eyes – I mean it does look nice on the invites, but I am just not that formal, and Hector is not either.  It was then, at that exact moment that I started to freak out, just a little bit.  I am a planner, I love to plan, but planning an event like this, the ultimate party for myself could be nothing less than extraordinary and I had to be mindful of everyone and everything.

Is it time for the honeymoon yet?

Invite


Know the Signs - just in case part #1

July 30, 2009

4:00pm - I sat at my desk and with in minutes started to feel weird - this was not like the first time.  My left arm started to go numb and feel weak, I felt nauseous and a gradual headache made reading and focusing on my work almost impossible.  I ignored it at first.  I get headaches - they happen.  I work out all the time, so I am used to aches and pains, but this felt different.  So different in fact that I thought of my neurologist and called my neurologist's office a few minutes before 5:00pm to make my annual check up.  5:15pm I took 2 baby aspirin, again just in case.  My arm got weaker and pain started to radiated in the upper part of my arm.  I pulled out some post-it notes from desk and wrote "I might be having a stroke, only take me to the Beth Israel". I slipped the note back in my desk drawer so that I would not raise alarm for anyone, but that it would be accessible just in case I needed it.  After speaking to Hector, and telling him how I was feeling, he urged me to call my doctor.  5:50pm, I called my doctor's office, and the nurse  - after reading over my medical history - suggested that I go to the emergency room just to be safe - she said that she would call ahead and tell them about my situation.  She asked me several times if I was able to get to the hospital safely, I felt that I was, so off I went.

Driving though Boston can be a challenge at any time of day.  Driving through Boston an hour before a Boston Red Sox game is misery.  I navigated along the Charles River, past Boston University, around one side of Fenway Park and finally got myself to the Longwood Medical area.  Tears started running down my face as I remembered the last time I went this route was when I actually experienced a stroke and rode in an ambulance.  This time was different - I was by myself, and no one really knew where I was going.  I maneuvered through traffic and finally got myself to the emergency room parking lot.  

As I starting to walk in, two women were in front of me on their way into the ER, one of which was in a wheel chair.  I needed to get in front of them, so I started quickening my pace.  Now perhaps this was not very nice of me considering they were significantly older, but at this point I did not care.  I was alone, scared, and needed someone to give me some kind of reassurance.  This was not going to be a moment for pleasantries or manners, and I did not want to wait in line.  When I got into the building their was a triage receptionist taking "orders" and a really tanned couple was giving their problem in extensive detail.  Although there were three other windows for people to go to, there were no nurses behind the windows waiting there.  To my left a receptionist sat reviewing various bits of paper and looking at her nails.  That was my ticket - I was not going to wait in line - regardless of the octogenarian duo in front of me.

I walked to the receptionist on my left and explained my situation all the while trying to keep it together.  She gave me a blank stare not really getting it. I told her again that my doctor's office had recently called over and that three yrs ago I had a stroke.  Several hours ago I started feeling odd, seemingly having stroke-like symptoms.  I wanted to see someone straight away.  She pointed me towards a chair to sit down, and a triage nurse came over to take over to ask me some questions and take my vitals... Blood Pressure:  110/70, pulse: 56. Time: 6:30pm.  Another nurse came over and asked me to follow her back to the ER, she led me into ER room #17 and asked me to undress from the top down -with that she left the room.

I changed into the johhny and pulled my iPod and computer onto the gurney and started to get ready to do some work while I waited, because I knew that there would be a great deal of waiting ahead.  And so it began - the tests.  I knew what to expect, I am all too familiar with neurological testing, and in fact when I was back in my office a few hours earlier, I did some tests on myself - I stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom and smiled to see if the smile was even.  It was.  But the doctors asked me to smile again, and touch my nose, raise my arms up, squeeze their fingers.  The tests went on... and on. There were two neurologists there - both women, one tall one short - and they both wanted to ask their own questions and conduct their own series of test.  While one of the nurses impressed upon them that it was time for my MRI, the shorter of the two neurologists quipped "Well, we better follow you" and they quickened their pace to follow the gurney down the hall - the little one practically ran she was so excited (if I could have read minds, I would bet that she wanted to find something on the ct-scan...).

The scan came back normal much to my relief - they did several scans in fact, with and without contrast.  I was brought back to my "room" and left to wait.  At this point it was around 7:00pm, which mean shift change for the nurses.  The new nurse, a young man, came into the room and took my vitals and again I was asked what happened.  I suppose that reading a chart is out of the question, and each person needs to hear the story on their own.  By this point I was tired, and I felt alone, and I was sure that my story was not sounding exactly the same from one version to the next.

After making several phone calls to tell key people (boyfriend and mother...) where I was, I pressed the call button and the nurse came in.

Me: Um, what is the situation? (I lay there with one legged draped over the metal bars on the side of the gurney)

Nurse: Well, I looked at the computer, and they want you to stay the night.

Me: Well, I do not want to stay the night.

Nurse: Well, we can't make you, it is your body, and you are of sound mind, but that is what the doctors are ordering.

Me: Well, I have my groceries in my car.  Is there a place I can put them?

Nurse: ????

Me: Well, can I go out there and get them?  I am hungry.

Nurse: I do not think that you can eat. 

Me: Well, can you get the doctors?  I really do not want to stay.  This is not in my plan.

Nurse: OK.

(stay tuned for part 2...)


Learning to Life - lessons from a stroke

Last week I was asked to give a speech at a Bank of America Event.  After several written versions, I had the final one in hand, and gave the speech on a cool rainy afternoon.  I thought that it would be perfect for a blog post.  So here it is in it entirety (edited by Grammar Glamour)

I tend to be one of those people where more is more – the more that I have going on, the more productive I tend to be.  When there is a lull in any part of my life, all of the pieces including work, social and family are somehow affected.  I find that I bring more to each aspect when they are all in motion.  Over the course of any given day, I rush from one meeting to the next, or often in my case, one job to the next, juggling my coffee, my gym bag, my purse, and somehow making it to my final destination before feeling like I am going to collapse.  I am sure that many of you can relate to this multi-tasking induced exhaustion.

It is a challenge to go through everyday like this, and there are days when the only things that feel balanced are the two bags hanging off my arms as I jet off to work each morning.  Still, I thrive off of the energy and simply readjust the priorities if I ever feel that I’m truly losing my balance.  This wasn’t always the case and I’m thankful I now have this perspective.  Several years ago, dire circumstances forced me to reconsider my own priorities, and think long and hard about what really matters.

On July 21, 2006 – close to three years ago – I was navigating those balanced two bags back and forth between two jobs.  Former colleagues at the Harvard Business School asked me if I could come over and teach a fitness class during lunch.  Fitness was something that I did in a previous life, and I figured that I could make this happen.  I’d teach the noon class, grab a quick bite with my boyfriend after class, and then hurry back to work.  It would be a long lunch break with the fitness class included, but it was summer and a Friday afternoon. 

On our way to lunch following the class, I started to feel ill.  I stumbled, thought that I said a few words about not feeling well, and grabbed some bushes to stop myself from falling.  In a matter of seconds, I went from laughing with Hector, my boyfriend, and Erika, a long time friend of mine, to being unable to communicate at all or think clearly.  Imagine someone turned a switch in your head that stopped you from speaking.  Gone.  Off.  Finished.  That is what happened to me – and that is how I can best describe what my stroke felt like.  As surreal and confusing as it was, I remember everything form that day. 

Hector asked me his name, my name, what day it was.  Nothing came out of my mouth, as I could not respond.  Instead, I just watched him, trying to figure out what to do with the situation.  He drove me to the hospital and after I was admitted, the doctors administered a series of tests.  Almost an hour from the initial onset of the stroke, I received the news… I had a 1.5 centimeter blood clot in my head.  It stopped blood from flowing to areas of my temporal lobe, which is associated with speech.  After four days in the hospital, a cardiologist found an atrial septal defect (or an ASD), which is a hole between the left and right atria in the heart – which had been there since birth.  He concluded that this was most likely the cause of the stroke.  And several hours later I was sent home with another title to add to my list of roles … a stroke patient.  Several months later, I underwent open-heart surgery to close the hole in my heart that caused the stroke.

I scheduled the surgery during a quiet time at work.  I knew that work would be less demanding in December and I would have more time to focus on getting well following the surgery, instead of worrying about what was occurring in the office.  For four months, I busied myself planning every second of each day.  I focused on my work, my doctors’ appointments, my fitness…everything and anything that I could to avoid coming to terms with the sheer reality of the looming open heart surgery that would take me out of the day-to-day routine that I had become so accustomed to.  In my typical more is more method, I became completely and utterly frenzied during those months.

The frenzy suddenly stopped on December 12, 2006 for the surgery – and then switched to neutral for the two months that followed.  I really had no choice but to slow down my pace.  No, nothing was wrong with my heart as far as stress went, but still, I underwent open-heart surgery, and I needed rest.  I am not sure if you have ever had the luxury of taking 2 months away from your life as you know it… but it forced me to refocus and regroup my priorities.  Two months away from work, away from the daily routine of early morning fitness classes, ignoring e-mail messages at 6:30 in the morning, not thinking about what I was going to cook for dinner or who I needed to make plans with felt incredibly liberating.  While these things are important, I came to realize that life went on without immediately attending to these items that had always seemed so pressing.  In fact, life improved by letting some of these things slide.  The emails could wait until later in the day, or even tomorrow.  If I didn’t have time to plan dinner, it was easy enough to get take out or have a bowl of cereal instead of stressing myself out.  Even work went on without my constant attention, proving that while I took pride in my job, I could still do it well without always putting it first. Putting myself and Hector first freed me up to approach everything else with a calmer, happier attitude.  This realization enabled me to better balance my personal and professional life once I was healthy enough to pick up the pace.  While it didn’t happen overnight, it did happen, but unfortunately, it took a stroke and open-heart surgery for me to come to this realization.

Following the stroke and surgery, many of my friends and colleagues remarked on the change in my attitude and demeanor, and the shift in my priorities – people started to describe me as more direct, more calm, and more at ease with life in general.  Since I had experienced first hand that life was short, I learned to drop the baggage that often gets picked up as you go on living day to day.  Time is short, and each minute is important.  I needed to make the most of each one and capitalize on the time that I had.

Having a stroke at any age is devastating.  Having a stroke at 33 with no risk factors – except for that problematic hole – was mind numbing.  In fact, to this day, I am not sure that I have fully accepted what happened, let alone the severity of what could have happened, on that July day in 2006.  That aside, I have gained perspective on life and learned about prioritizing, and setting realistic attainable goals.

You might not have time to do everything, and you might not have time to do everything well.  What is most important is that YOU become a priority in your own life.  Of course, work is a priority and it is something that gives people a sense of self and worth.  Speaking for myself, I love what I do.  Years ago, I promised myself that the second I am no longer satisfied with my work, I will start to explore other options.  While it might seem terribly cliché, life is short and you really do not know what is going to happen or when it might happen to you.  When I was in the hospital following my stroke, and certainly in the months, weeks, and days leading up to my open heart surgery, I found myself questioning some of the decisions that I had made in my life, wondering if they were the right ones. I happily discovered that I did not have any regrets, and I am fortunate enough to have learned to live in the present and appreciate what I have at such a young age.  So much of living is about the balance of work, family and friends.  I think that we all have those days when work takes up more time than we might like, or perhaps family or friends are taking up all of the time, and we know in the back of our minds that we need to get back to work – but it is all about give and take.  You need to be able to find and make time for yourself, so that the other critical elements in your life will fall into place without any one part, especially your health, seriously suffering.

I am obviously going to advocate for a healthy lifestyle – it is something that I led before the stroke and surgery, and something that is even more of a priority in my life now.  I realized that even as healthy as I was, I could not control certain factors of my life – such as a congenital heart defect.  You can take this same story and relate it to work, finances and / or family.  There are just so many things that are beyond your control, and you truly have no way of knowing what is going to happen 10 minutes from now, 10 hours from now, or 10 days from now, let alone 10 years from now.  But you can ensure that whatever does end up happening, you are prepared – both mentally and physically.

What I mean is that it is important for you to have other outlets in your life that allow you to regroup.  For me, exercise and overall fitness was and is my sanity.  It takes me out of the daily grind and forces me to do something for me.  I do not bring a BlackBerry with me, because I am not exercising at 6 am for anyone but myself – I will take my phone when I go running, but only for safety purposes due to my stroke.

It is truly about balance.  I know that I continue to come back to that term – but now, more than ever, as we’re bombarded by emails on our laptops and Blackberrys, and surrounded by bleak news about the current economic situation and global events, it is entirely too easy to become consumed in the day to day and simply forget about yourself.  It is not worth it.  Trust me.  When I was lying on the gurney being wheeled off to my surgery, I was not thinking about the e-mails that I sent the days before, the change in my job description that I worked for several years to achieve, or even the hesitation I felt as I left the office knowing that I would not be back for two months.  No.  I thought about my parents, Hector, my grandmother, my sister, my nephews, and how lucky I was to have them all with me.  I seriously had planned for the worst-case scenario – which was not waking up.  But, no matter what the outcome, somehow I knew that everything would be all right because I took this extra time before my surgery to be with my family.

At the end of the day, it is not about who can respond to an email the fastest or stay at the office the longest.  In fact, I know many people who work long hours, but are far less productive than those who come in, do their work, leave around 6 pm and go home to be with their friends, their family, or simply their yoga instructor.  Let me tell you, the latter group is definitely the happiest and no doubt the healthiest.

Trust your instincts on this.  Trust yourself, put yourself first, and learn to live YOUR life and live it well.  There’s no room for regrets when you only have one chance to get it right.

   

-Lily Underwood Burns, June 30, 2009 Bank of America LEAD Speech


Work Your Heart Out

Last week I started posting about the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women: Better U Movement.  This 12-week program is a way to take steps - one at a time - to understand and learn about the importance of heart health.  The steps are literal, as they should be when one is talking about heart health.  You can make over your heart, make it stronger, make it work more efficiently, and make yourself healthier.  You might ask me how I know this information, and my first answer would be that I am a fitness instructor.  However, the more important and even relevant response is that I suffered a stroke in July 2006 and underwent open heart surgery several months later.  Because my heart had been worked, running up stadium stairs, the 1996 Chicago Marathon, hundreds of step aerobic classes, laps around tracks, hours on a treadmill, and years perfecting squats and bicep curls, I recovered from the stroke and from the heart surgery and found myself back at the gym, back to getting my heart beating like it once was, less than two weeks after the stroke and less than two months after the heart surgery*.

Yes, years of working my heart actually saved it.  Every single day that I decided to exercise and to work out, I made a decision to save myself.  Yes, the stroke happened after I taught a step aerobics class (irony at its best...) but due to previous training, and a conscious decision to take care of myself, I emerged healthier that I was before, stronger than I was before, and more aware of what I needed to do to ensure that I could forever choose to make a difference in my life and the lives of others.


*While this time-frame worked for me, it might not be the most ideal time frame for all stroke / heart surgery patients.  It is always best to check with your doctor before starting / resuming any kind of exercise program.


Support

What were you yesterday?  Recovering from the Boston Marathon?  Appreciating the spring weather? Or among the hundreds of American Heart Association and American Stroke Association Advocates on Capitol Hill speaking to members of Congress about funding, education, and research for the Nation's number one and number three killer.  Yes, you heard me.  Heart disease kills more people than anything else in the United States, and stroke is number three.   What exactly does that mean and why does this matter?  Good question!  One person dies every 37 seconds from cardiovascular disease (American Heart Association).

Over the past few days Hector and I were lucky enough to go to Capitol Hill with the AHA and ASA to speak to members of Congress about these funding efforts.  While on the Hill we meet exceptional people from all over the country with heart disease, heart defect, and stroke.  To see these people made everything so very real.  You would think that it would be real enough for me after having had a stroke and open heart surgery.  But meeting other "like" people really changed so much.  None of these efforts would be possible without the support of the American Heart and American Stroke Associations.  I especially have to thank the team from Massachusetts... Boston_aha

Aside from thanking the AHA and ASA, I have to thank Hector who not only saved me (literally) when I had my stroke, but gives me support every single day in my efforts to raise awareness around stroke and heart education.Lub_hhh Ok, enough already, it sounds as if I am giving an Oscar's speech or something!

In any event, the past few days were extraordinary in every sense of the word.  For more information please check out these sites:

National Institutes of Health
Center for Disease Control


D.C. and the AHA

The Cherry Blossoms have gone - they are no longer on the trees; they are fragile and delicate, and can disappear right before your eyes.  That means that the tourists who have come by the hundreds of thousands to Washington, D.C. to see the event have also gone.  However, the city is still full.  It is full of life. 

As the plane touched down shortly before noon this morning I realized just how much life really existed within the Beltway.  Major decisions are made in the District - and over the next few days I will have the privilege to join hundreds of other American Heart Association advocates to discuss future decisions: Health Care Reform, NIH Heart and Stroke Research, and CDC Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention Program.

All efforts to increase awareness around the Nation's number one killer.  Heart Disease.  And the Nation's number three killer.  Stroke.

Almost three years ago at 33 I had a stroke due to a previously undiagnosed congenital heart defect, and this is why I am here today: to advocate for heart and stroke awareness and education.  After all, a heart can go just as quickly as those cherry blossoms if you do not take the time to appreciate it while it is there.


Go Red... TODAY

Mall posterFINAL
Why do I Go Red?   The American Heart Association works tirelessly to get its message out their about the importance of heart health for women everywhere.  One simple way is by wearing Red.  Everyone, everywhere, on the same day.  Today, February 6, 2009 is Go Red for Women Day.

    -One in three women die of heart disease
    -Every minute of every day a woman dies from a heart related issue. 
    -Heart disease is the nations number 1 killer

What frustrates me to no end is that more often than not heart disease (and subsequently stroke) is preventable.  As someone who has spent more than half of my life in the fitness industry, I see people who make positive changes to their lives everyday.  I come across people who take better steps to a healthier heart.  Of course there are those heart problems occur without warning no matter what steps were taken.  My stroke was caused by a congenital heart defect.  No matter what choices I made, my stroke would probably have occurred.  I Go Red for my own heart, for my mother's heart, for my grandmother, my sister, and all the women who do not have a voice or a choice in the matter.