A lifelong series of heart problems turned her into a staunch advocate

By Kellie B. Gormly, American Heart Association News

Chrissy Gaffney is passionate about advocating for women's heart health after decades of heart problems that began in childhood. (Photo courtesy of Chrissy Gaffney)
Chrissy Gaffney is passionate about advocating for women's heart health after decades of heart problems that began in childhood. (Photo courtesy of Chrissy Gaffney)

As a young girl, Chrissy Gaffney endured occasional fevers and body aches that made her struggle to walk. Although the family doctor diagnosed her with arthritis, her parents weren't convinced.

Then, when she was 12, she struggled to breathe while doing the 1-mile run for the presidential physical fitness test. She was sent home for the day. Her parents ended up taking her to a cardiologist. Tests led to the discovery of a congenital heart defect: a hole between the upper chambers of her heart.

"Your daughter is going to need heart surgery," the doctor told her parents. "Sooner, rather than later."

The surgery at a Boston hospital went well. She remembers that once she recovered, she felt stronger than before. Indeed, she went on to play volleyball, basketball, track and soccer into her adult years. (Last year, she was inducted into the athletics hall of fame at her alma mater, Worcester State University.) She went on to have two sons and a daughter.

In her early 40s, juggling the schedules of three children, Gaffney exercised less often. At 45, she resolved to try losing the roughly 25 pounds she'd added. Her new routine included walking on a track at the high school next door to the middle school where her two sons attended in Worcester, Massachusetts.

During a walk one day, Gaffney wasn't even halfway around the track when she started gasping for air.

"It literally felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest," she said.

She didn't call 911 because she feared her sons would see her taken away by an ambulance. She stumbled to her car and managed to drive home. She talked about it with her husband and they chalked it up to her being out of shape. She decided to wait for an upcoming appointment with her primary care physician.

Chrissy Gaffney (right) with her husband, Steve, at an AHA fundraiser in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Chrissy Gaffney)
Chrissy Gaffney (right) with her husband, Stephen, in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Chrissy Gaffney)

Over the next few weeks, climbing the stairs at work left her completely winded. By the time she saw that doctor, she knew there was a serious problem. She wound up seeing a cardiologist, who diagnosed her with atrial flutter, a type of irregular heartbeat that causes the heart to pump very rapidly.

A procedure called a cardioversion was supposed to correct it. However, she had another episode a few weeks later. Another doctor performed a similar but different procedure, an ablation. All was well – for three years.

Sitting at the kitchen table, Gaffney's heart started racing again. Her husband, Stephen, a firefighter, rushed home from his overnight shift and took her to the emergency room. Doctors gave Gaffney another cardioversion. She later had another ablation.

Three years after that, Gaffney's fingers, face and ankles swelled. These turned out to be signs of heart failure.

Now 57, Gaffney gets winded easily. She has occasional bouts of atrial fibrillation, an irregular and rapid heartbeat that can lead to blood clots. She goes through phases where she struggles and phases when she feels especially healthy and energetic.

"This is my new normal," Gaffney said. "Your heart is a muscle. Over time, it takes a toll."

Gaffney continues to walk and tries to follow a heart-healthy diet. She uses her story to help other women understand their risks, such as emphasizing that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. She also has encouraged Massachusetts legislators to support healthier school lunches and funding for stroke awareness and tobacco cessation. And, for many years, she's demonstrated how to perform hands-only CPR.

Chrissy Gaffney (second from left) with close friends at a previous year's Central Massachusetts Heart and Stroke Walk. (Photo courtesy of Chrissy Gaffney)
Chrissy Gaffney (second from left) with friends at a Central Massachusetts Heart and Stroke Walk. (Photo courtesy of Chrissy Gaffney)

"Chrissy is a fantastic human being who has used her experience with adult congenital heart disease and serious symptomatic arrhythmias to help others," said her cardiologist, Dr. David D. McManus. "Her resilience, her spirit and her contributions to others through the AHA and other organizations is inspirational to me."

Gaffney's primary message: Listen to your body.

"You know your body better than anybody," she said. "If something doesn't feel right, check it out and don't wait, because you just don't know."

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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