Donna Jensen knew she was under a lot of stress, working full time and caring for her husband Steve, who has Parkinson's disease. What she didn't know was that her heart couldn't take much more.
February is American Heart Month, and Donna wanted to share her story to highlight the risks of heart disease - the No. 1 killer of women.
It was October when she first began noticing something wasn't quite right. Her chest was burning when she was walking outside, and it wasn't due to the temperature or a reflection of her fitness level - Donna was an avid walker, and she ate well too.
Donna Jensen cuts up vegetables to go in a soup she is making at her home in Fairmont.
She shrugged it off.
Soon, the next symptom came: pressure in her chest. Then she started sweating profusely. One night, while carrying laundry upstairs, she was short of breath.
"It scared me but not enough to go to the ER," she said. "I laid low over the weekend."
That Monday, she planned to talk to a doctor first thing when she went to work at Mayo Clinic Health System in Fairmont, where she worked in billing for Medicare patients. That day, while filling the car with gas, she felt it again - a burning like horrible acid reflix, shortness of breath, and pressure on her chest. Now she was really scared.
It was before hours, but Donna drove straight to the clinic, where she was directed to the Emergency Room. The blood work looked OK, but Dr. Clint Masterson called for an EKG. Again, no abnormalities appeared to be present, until the doctor compared the EKG to another performed the year before during a pre-surgery physical.
"There was a big change," Donna said. "They didn't know for sure, but they suspected I might have had a heart attack."
An ambulance transported Donna to Mankato, where more tests were performed. By then, she was feeling better - and anxious to get home, where she had work waiting for her. She had almost convinced herself everything was fine, when one of the tests came back showing the main artery on the right side of her heart was 85 percent blocked.
"This was really out of the blue," she said. "I have no family history of heart disease. My cholesterol was OK."
"She had a clear slate before that last test," her husband said.
That day a stent was put in to widen the artery and prevent a complete blockage, which would cause a heart attack.
When she had recovered from the surgery, she began the cardiac rehab program through the medical center. It taught her some valuable tools to further improve her heart condition. The class would start with stretches, and then, with her heart rate closely monitored, Donna would work out for 10 minutes each on three different machines, taking breaks in between. She would then take a cool-down walk, followed by more stretching. The class would end with a 10- to 15-minute educational component. Different speakers addressed topics like medications, reading food labels, portion sizes and exercise.
"It was very educational," said Donna, who has changed some of her eating habits based on things she learned in the program. "They were probably things most of us already know, but we need to be reminded."
Looking back, Donna thinks stress was a big part of the problem: "I was always in a hurry to do everything. [Steve] was always telling me to slow down. This was a good warning I needed."
She went back to work for a little while, but decided to take an early retirement with her 62nd birthday in November. That gives the Jensens more time to spend together, which is both good and bad, the couple joked.
Married 42 years, the couple ordered new wedding bands to celebrate Valentine's Day this year.
"This taught me that I have a lot of blessings in my life," said Donna, who wants to live to see her eight grandchildren grow up.
To help women assess their heart health, Mayo Clinic Health System has an online risk assessment tool at: www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/getchecked
According to Mayo's site, smokers are at an increased risk for heart disease, and so are people exposed to second-hand smoke. Constant exposure to tobacco smoke doubles the chance of a heart attack.
Besides avoiding tobacco, Mayo recommends having your blood pressure checked every two years, exercising regularly and eating a low-fat diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.