Her smartwatch alerted her to a heart issue the week of her 40th birthday

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg, American Heart Association News

Heart disease survivor JuNene K. is now climbing mountains and working toward a PhD in natural medicine. (Photo courtesy of JuNene K. Harris)
Heart disease survivor JuNene K. is now climbing mountains and working toward a PhD in natural medicine. (Photo courtesy of JuNene K. Harris)

Two days before her 40th birthday, JuNene K. Harris was asleep at home in Lancaster, Texas, when she woke up to her smartwatch buzzing incessantly on her wrist.

JuNene – known professionally as JuNene K. – had gone to bed exhausted. For the past year, she'd been the primary caretaker of her brother, GJ, who had brain damage after a heart attack and stroke. Now, jolted awake in the middle of the night, she felt her heart racing. Her breathing was erratic and she couldn't speak. Her watch showed that her heart was beating over 180 times per minute.

JuNene's daughter, then-16-year-old Jendayi, called her grandmother.

"Mom's crying and her chest is hurting," Jendayi said.

"Call an ambulance," said Debra Ivy, JuNene's mother.

Paramedics took JuNene's blood pressure. It was high, too. Recognizing the signs of a type of irregular heartbeat called supraventricular tachycardia, or SVT, they gave her medicine. JuNene's blood pressure normalized.

Minutes later, she stopped breathing. Paramedics restored her heartbeat as the ambulance barreled toward the hospital.

Doctors found a problem with the electrical system of her heart. To correct it, they said she would soon need a procedure called an ablation. It essentially destroys the small area of heart tissue causing the irregular heartbeat.

The next day, JuNene went home to celebrate her 40th birthday. She left the hospital with medication to control her blood pressure and orders to rest, returning a few weeks later for the ablation procedure.

Soon after turning 40, JuNene K. had an ablation procedure to treat an irregular heartbeat. (Photo courtesy of W.Photography)
Soon after turning 40, JuNene K. had an ablation procedure to treat an irregular heartbeat. (Photo courtesy of W.Photography)

She soon started having chest pain. She wore a heart monitor for a week. Doctors discovered she had a hiatal hernia. It's when the upper part of the stomach pushes through the large muscle that divides the abdomen and chest. They gave her medicine.

In the meantime, with her brother's health history – which included blood clots that had traveled to his lungs – JuNene wanted more testing.

Bloodwork uncovered a genetic mutation that makes her more likely to develop blood clots. She now makes sure to get up and move around after sitting for long stretches.

To lessen her stress, her family hired home health workers to help care for GJ.

"I was dying to help him live," JuNene said. "I had to be cognizant to pace myself, give more directives, let other people care for him with the same vigor that I did as a sister. I had to let go of the need to control. You can't pour from an empty cup."

To better fill her cup, she made time for meditation and nature walks, especially by the water.

Eight weeks after her ablation, JuNene climbed a 1,600-foot mountain in Georgia. Three months later, she scaled pyramids in Mexico. Last year, she went ziplining. This year, she jumped out of a plane.

"My heart disease doesn't stop me from living. It keeps me alive," she said.

GJ died in 2020. Since then, JuNene – now 44 – returned to school to get her PhD in natural medicine.

Recently, she felt a fluttering in her chest, a feeling she described as "almost like you're going down a rollercoaster and you get butterflies, but in your heart."

She regularly sees her cardiologist. The doctor said it may require another ablation.

When she feels a flutter, JuNene tries to remain calm. She focuses on her breath. She also keeps a small red bell on the dashboard of her car. When she feels nervous or anxious, she rings it. It's an audible reminder to breathe and to center herself.

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

Editor's note: This story was updated on Feb. 18 to correct the timeline of events. JuNene's ablation procedure happened after her 40th birthday, not before.

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