Wilton woman is heart ‘survivor’

If it weren’t for her insistent mother, Selina Santos’ life might be much different.
As it is, Santos will be among six area women spotlighted in a “survivor video” at the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women Luncheon and Health & Wellness Expo on Wednesday, May 4, at the Stamford Marriott Hotel & Spa. Registration begins at 10. For information, visit http://bit.ly/1Wb3mxm.

Santos’ problem began well before she moved to Wilton six years ago. The 39-year-old suffered from blood pressure problems since her early 20s while she was living in Chicago.

“I didn’t recognize it,” she told The Bulletin on Monday, but her mother, who is a nurse, “put my feet to the flames and said there’s something wrong here.

“I could not breathe. Walking up stairs, walking on the treadmill, was arduous.” Although she was not overweight, she thought she was just really out of shape.

“My blood pressure was always high. The diastolic number was always in the 100s,” she said. That’s the bottom number in a blood pressure reading, and according to the American Heart Association, having a diastolic reading of 100 or higher indicates stage 2 hypertension.

She visited several doctors in Chicago, all of whom dismissed her problems, chalking it up to stress, saying she was a young woman and she wouldn’t have a problem.

“I listened to the doctors,” she said. “They gave me no medication. I didn’t explore it further.” Why should she? “They are much smarter than me in this field,” Santos said. “They told me you’re too young. … I took it, I worked 100 hours a week, I ate poorly and I exercised when I felt like it.”

As the years went by, however, her symptoms got worse. She moved to Connecticut in 2010 and walking up the stairs was still difficult.

“One day I was sitting at my desk and could not breathe. She went to the Tully Health Center in Stamford and found her blood pressure “was through the roof.”

It was recommended she see Dr. Evelyn Cusack, a cardiologist. “She is the doctor that changed my life,” Santos said. “She didn’t look at me as a young women. She looked at me and was going to figure out what was wrong.”

After a number of tests and medication to stabilize her, Cusack diagnosed a faulty heart valve.

“But she said there is something else. There’s no way you are feeling your symptoms from just that valve.” Further testing revealed a tiny hole in her aorta that was causing every fifth beat of her heart to send blood in the wrong direction. It is called aortic insufficiency and Santos was told she had to change her lifestyle or face surgery. A stroke or heart attack were not out of the picture.

“I’ll never forget it,” Santos said. “She understood me from the second I walked in. No matter how old you are, as a woman you have to take care of your heart.”

In addition to two medications, the prescription was to exercise regularly and watch what she ate. Santos did both and signed up at the JoyRide indoor cycling studio in Westport.

“I started riding once a week, then two, then three, then five times a week.” She was spinning so much the owner asked if she’d like to teach a class. Now she teaches at JoyRide in Westport, Darien and Wilton.

Santos continued seeing Cusack every six months and then on Dec. 15 of last year, Santos was told “you sound perfect.”

Now she is on just one medication. She regularly measures her blood pressure, which is now normal, and watches her salt intake. She does not have to go back to the doctor for a year.

Santos came to the American Heart Association’s attention when she participated in a Self Magazine event called Change of Heart. Santos organized a spinning fund-raiser around Valentine’s Day and raised $3,000 for the heart association.

She tells her story because she feels she was unjustly dismissed by the doctors in Chicago. “You put aside some of those symptoms — oh, I’m just tired, I’m stressed out, it will pass. It might not be stress or you’re not exhausted because of not enough sleep.”

“This story came out with the American Heart Association, because of what I’ve done,” Santos said. “I’m preventing what could happen.”