Message from a Patient on the Mend: Learn to Take Care of Yourself and Your Heart

Andrea Mapp, a 55-year-old mother of two, is bouncing back from heart failure, and she wants as many people as possible to learn from her experience. Her goal is to get the word out about the importance of eating right, exercising regularly, limiting stress, and taking your medicines. You can’t just focus on taking care of everyone else, she explains. You have to learn to focus on yourself. “That’s not easy,” she admits. But she’s working on it. 

Three years ago, Andrea was holding down two jobs and didn’t have a moment for herself. Then she was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, called atrial fibrillation or AFib. This condition can lead to blood clots and increases your chances of stroke, heart failure, or other heart problems. The urgent care doctor sent Andrea to the Emergency Department, where they treated her with a defibrillator, a machine that provides quick, low-energy electric shocks to the heart. This jolt restored Andrea’s heart to its normal rhythm. She decided not to worry about it and went back to living her hectic life.

Fast forward to June 2022. Over a few weeks, Andrea’s normal activities—walking down the block or going food shopping—left her feeling extremely tired and short of breath. She tried her asthma medication - the inhaler, then the nebulizer, but neither worked. It got to the point she just couldn’t breathe. She then went to Urgent Care, where they carried out a chest X-ray and an electrocardiogram (EKG). She was diagnosed again with AFib, and rushed to the Emergency Department at Mount Sinai Morningside. She was admitted to the hospital, where she came under the care of Basera Sabharwal, MD, Chief Fellow of Cardiovascular Disease at the hospital. Andrea “hadn’t seen a cardiologist after the episode of AFib three years ago, she wasn’t followed to see if it had recurred and if she needed medications,” says Dr. Sabharwal.

That took a toll. “Andrea’s heart was weak and unable to pump blood forward to her body. Instead, fluid backed into her lungs, making it hard for her to breathe,” the cardiologist says. Due to the AFib, her heart was working overtime, beating 130 or 140 times a minute. “Imagine I asked you to squeeze your fist 60 times in a minute; your hand wouldn’t get tired, right?” Dr. Sabharwal explains. “But if I asked you to squeeze it 150 times a minute for a long period of time, your hand muscle is going to feel tired. That’s what was happening with Andrea’s heart.”

Andrea was in heart failure and at risk of cardiac arrest. Dr. Sabharwal kept Andrea in the hospital for a few days to get the fluid out of her lungs. She also shocked Andrea’s heart to bring her out of the AFib to normal rhythm. Her heart was weak, functioning at only 20% (normal is about 55 to 60%). She was put on medications for the AFib as well as for the weak heart muscle.

“Dr. Sabharwal really cares,” Andrea says. “She’s very calm. Because we always had our masks on, I couldn’t see her whole face. But her voice—I could recognize her calming voice in my sleep.”

A week later, when Andrea returned for her check-up, her EKG (which checks for irregularities in the heart’s electrical impulses) and echocardiogram (which checks for irregularities in the heart structure) were concerning. Taken together, the tests showed that Andrea’s heart was still not pumping as it should. Dr. Sabharwal decided to do an angiogram, a procedure that shows how the blood flows through the heart and blood vessels—and meant Andrea had to spend the night in the hospital.

The test showed no blockage in Andrea’s heart. That meant Andrea could go home, but would still need to take care of herself: watch her diet, follow an exercise regimen, cut down on stress, and continue with her medications and doctor’s visits. “I have a Fitbit now,” Andrea says. She has gotten up to more than 11,000 steps a day, is eating more fruits and vegetables and few fried foods, and has lost 30 pounds. She is diligent with taking all her meds and following up with her doctors regularly. She is also focusing on her mental health to limit stress. “She’s doing very well,” says her cardiologist. “Her heart function has recovered!"

AFib was a wake-up call for Andrea. But what really changed her attitude was the birth of her son’s daughter. “My princess is here,” she says. Now she is doing everything she can to stay healthy. She wants to be around to watch her granddaughter grow up.

“I’m learning to be selfish,” Andrea says. “I can’t do everything for everyone,” she explains. “I don’t know if I would be here if I didn’t take that extra minute to take care of myself. If you have symptoms, you have to go to the doctor, no matter how busy you are.”