She calls herself a ‘walking time bomb,’ but this St. Martin woman refuses to live in fear

St. Martin woman overcomes health issues to be there for family

Maryellen Farmer of St. Martin has used exercise to help overcome weight issues and hereditary heart disease.
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Maryellen Farmer of St. Martin has used exercise to help overcome weight issues and hereditary heart disease.

She lives with a rare, ticking time bomb of a heart issue, something that could recur and cripple her at any time.

But she had 30 pounds to lose.

So Maryellen Farmer got advice on exercise and health, took control of her eating and lost the 30 pounds.

What she has now is “a measure of control,” she told the Sun Herald. She’s no longer afraid to try, no longer feeling lost and wrestling with the negative thoughts that accompany a hopeless state of mind.

Here’s what happened and what she did:

She had tried many times to lose weight, but began to believe that once she hit her mid-40s, she just couldn’t. What used to work didn’t work any more, even though she was active and had a gym membership.

Added to that was the beginning of heart issues. Palpitations and dizziness lead doctors to find a faulty valve they took care of with surgery in 2004.

“They told me I would feel better after the surgery, but I never did. I actually started feeling worse,” she said. “I was afraid to work out. I was really terrified. They finally said, ‘OK, let’s look.’ They had me put on a monitor and found I had developed an arrhythmia.”

She felt light-headed and uneasy, with all sorts of heart sensations.

It’s hard to explain, she said, “When you’re used to not even thinking about your heart and then you hear every beat and have pounding and missed beats.”

“They kept telling me my heart was better — ‘cholesterol is good, no plaque, your blood pressure’s good, you’ll never have a heart attack.’

“So I worked through those fears and put my faith in them. They put me on an anti-arrhythmia medication, which dulls the feelings so you don’t feel the symptoms.”

Four years ago, at the age of 53, her grandson was born, and he added incentive for her to get a plan for exercise and a handle on her weight. She was 5-foot-6 and weighed 185.

She started a low-carb diet, bought a gym membership again, started working out and lost 18 pounds, using spinning, swimming and ellipticals.

“I was feeling better than I had in a long time ... then I had the heart attack.”

It’s rarer to survive

It was a particularly rare attack, something that usually happens in pregnant women or alcoholic men, she said.

The lining of an artery tore and caused a flap that sealed off the artery. It wasn’t something that could be predicted in her case, she said. It’s called SCAD (spontaneous coronary artery dissection). It’s rare and rarer to survive.

On a Facebook page that she has since joined, she learned that she’s lucky compared with others — some have had more than one attack, are living with heart failure, are facing bypass surgery or are candidates for a transplant.

She also now knows a different artery could do it again, she said, in her neck, in her kidney or in her brain.

“Am I a walking time bomb? Yes,” she said.

Living in fear again, she gained back the 18 pounds and more.

She was in cardiac rehab, but no one could tell her how much to push herself, she said.

“My husband and I went bike riding. I had jaw pain and said, ‘No.’ I was done with that.”

She would get dizzy in yoga, and stopped.

It’s a mental game

Then last year, she received inspiration from an article in Woman’s Day magazine on the “Live Longer & Stronger Challenge.” She applied for the 2017 challenge and won.

In her application, she explained that she just couldn’t find the expertise on the Coast to deal with her very specific issues.

“I need someone who understands my health problems and my fears,” she wrote, “someone who can tell me how hard I can push myself, safely, and when I need to slow down. I have asked for guidance but never received anything other than, ‘Don’t lift more than 10 pounds’ and ‘Don’t let your heart rate get over 130 bpm.’

“I sent in my application, but I also began my journey to better health immediately by renewing my gym membership — which I had allowed to expire — and researching better eating habits. It’s a very mental game for me,” she said. “My biggest obstacle has been the fear and anxiety of having another heart attack. However, I’ve learned that living in constant fear and anxiety is not really living at all,” she wrote.

She and four other women were picked in the national contest. As part of it, for eight months, she received help from Today Show nutritionist Joy Bauer, RDN, and guidance from experts at the Mayo Clinic, the people who are doing cutting-edge research in SCAD.

But she had to do the work and make the changes herself, while living and continuing her job as a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers biologist here on the Coast.

Farmer set aside fear and got on board. She started in June 2016 by agreeing to follow an eating and exercise plan. Woman’s Day assigned an intern she could call.

She agreed to drink two glasses of water before every meal, she used a fitness app that broke down her nutrient intake.

She received recipes for healthier meals, a list of what to eat and a goal of 10,000 steps a day.

Private and introverted, Farmer struggled with agreeing to post her progress on Facebook, but she did it.

She and the other four encouraged each other. Once a month, she talked with a doctor at Mayo Clinic about SCAD in general and began learning about what she had.

Her only exercise was walking. The weight loss came from a change in her already healthy diet. They altered it to take off weight. Sometimes it was just as simple as replacing her favorite beans with asparagus.

At the end of the challenge in February, Woman’s Day flew her and the others to New York City for talk-show interviews and the 14th Annual Red Dress Awards for Heart Health Month.

She learned compassion

She met singer Melissa Etheridge, boxer Laila Ali and actress Jane Lynch. She told her story on the Today Show with Kathie Lee and Hoda.

She and the others were featured in the March issue of Woman’s Day.

However, “the journey’s not over,” she said. “I’m only halfway to my goal.”

She plans to stick with her Challenge alumni group and keep moving forward.

Farmer reached out for help and support, got outside her comfort zone and found something through Woman’s Day that would force her to challenge herself.

Her markers improved as her weight went down and her oxygen output is better than normal.

“My triglycerides and HDL (good cholesterol) levels are the best they’ve ever been.”

“I went from ‘I can’t do anything or I’ll die,’ to ‘There are some things I can do.’”

“I’m getting to the point where I can accept my mortality,” she said. “That helped me mentally.”

“I really think the emotional, mental part of it is the worst. A lot of people with heart issues deal with depression afterward.”

She still gets depressed, but she has become more compassionate.

“Each day is a day to do something for others,” she said, “to be more mindful of being courteous, to take the focus off of myself.”

Here’s what else she learned:

▪  Advocate for yourself. “When I was having the heart attack, I had to insist they check me. You know your body. You know when something is wrong.”

▪  Know there is always something you can do. Find it. Find a group. Control what nourishment you put in your body.

▪  Talk yourself out of negative thoughts.

▪  Get out of your comfort zone. Challenge yourself.

Want to try for the Woman’s Day challenge?

Go to womansday.com/livelonger2017 to apply for the 2017–2018 Live Longer & Stronger Challenge.

Maryellen’s tips for success

Enjoy your favorite food but do it smarter, with smaller portions.

Her diet highlights (1,200-1,500 calories):

▪  Cut way back on carbs, even the healthy ones like sweet potatoes, brown rice, beans, lentils, carrots and peas.

▪  Focus on broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus and green beans. “I miss my lima beans.”

▪  Protein smoothies

▪  Cheese sticks or an ounce of nuts as a snack

▪  Dinner is protein and a vegetable; lunch is a salad. “MyFitnessPal helped me see what was working.”

▪  Eggs are good

▪  Good fruit: Strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. Cut out the others.

▪  No sugar or artificial sweeteners. “I went cold turkey on sugar, and it took a couple of weeks for the cravings to stop and develop a new mindset.”

▪  Drink lots of water.