Fighting Back When Health Fails

How cultivating resilience can help manage some diagnoses and make you stronger.

A Q&A with Dr. Kate Mihevc Edwards

Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), orthopedic specialist, and CEO and owner of Precision Performance & Physical Therapy, Atlanta, GA. Dr. Edwards has been practicing for 10 years and specializes in treating runners, triathletes.

When author Dr. Edwards, author of Racing Heart: A Runner’s Journey of Love, Loss and Perseverance, published by The Space Between, was diagnosed with a rare heart condition called arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC) at the age of 34, she was devastated. A dedicated runner, she had to give up her passion, but she turned her life around by incorporating practices such as yoga and meditation. During that difficult time, her husband, some friends and her psychologist were always by her side. She did not ask for their help at the beginning, but later realized their support was essential. There is no cure for the disease, only management. Most people who have undiagnosed ARVC die suddenly. Four years after being diagnosed, Dr. Edwards’s condition has improved. Here she shares how she learned to face these life-changing challenges.

Does family history affect our health, especially heart disease?

Yes. I ate well, exercised and took care of myself but I still ended up with a genetic cardiac disease. Many diseases are genetic. Understanding your family health history is important. It can empower a person to make better choices about their diet, exercise and potential screening for diseases before they occur.

When our loved ones face health problems, they may feel the same way as you did – “scared, confused, sad, angry, lost and powerless.” How can we help? What is the most important factor that can help a person overcome a difficult health situation?

Support is the most important thing to offer a loved one. Allow them space to grieve, let them know you are there if they need you and don’t stay silent. Ask them what they need and truly listen to what they say. Don’t try to fix anything, instead ask them how they are doing even if it makes you uncomfortable.

Feeling supported is important to overcoming a difficult health situation. However, research has demonstrated that more resilient people recover better and faster. Resilience can be cultivated and learned.

Can you explain what arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC) is and what causes it?

ARVC is a rare genetic heart disease. The desmosomes (the little bridges) in the heart cells break and create scars on the wall of the heart. These scars affect how the electrical system works and can cause life-threatening arrhythmias, fatigue. As the scarring gets worse the heart muscle doesn’t pump efficiently and can become floppy. Exercise has been found to be a primary factor in who develops the disease and ultimately the severity of the disease. If you have the gene and you exercise, you have an 80 per cent chance of getting it. If you are sedentary, you have a 20 per cent chance.

Currently, there is nothing that stops the progression of the disease once it starts. If you stop exercising the progression has been shown to slow down. The current treatment is medication, lifestyle modification, ICD implantation (defibrillator) and heart transplant for some.

If ARVC is rare, why should people know about it?

Just because a disease is rare doesn’t mean it should be forgotten. ARVC is one of the diseases that cause sudden cardiac death in athletes. This is where family history is important. If you have a history of people dying young in your family then it would be a good idea to have a cardiac screen. Family history is the number one risk factor for many genetic cardiac diseases.

To overcome a disease, you need a strong mind. Can a person gain strength over the years or do they have to be born with a strong personality?

Anyone can become stronger. The mind is a muscle, too. All it needs is practice and training. Even if you are not born with resilience it can be cultivated.

Resilience equates with being strong, steady and staying in the moment. Your tips to achieve this?

It can be so difficult to stay in the moment but focusing on what you are grateful for and prioritizing yourself and happiness makes it easier.

How should we integrate yoga and meditation into our lives? And why?

Not everyone will love yoga or mediation and that is okay, however you never know until you give it a try. I began meditating slowly and found that with practice and the noticeable benefits in my mood and ability to cope I fell in love with it. I started with three to five minutes at a time and now meditation up to 30 minutes a day. Routine is important to incorporating meditation into your life –  if you do it everyday at the same time it is difficult to miss but if you do it here and there it’s easy to forget.  Yoga is also a practice you have to commit yourself to with routine. It is important to find a teacher and studio that resonates with you. It’s easy for me to go to yoga because I love my yoga community.

Why is running good for your physical and mental health? What do you advise for people who cannot run due to joint issues or other problems?

Running and exercise has been found to improve health, mood, memory, problem solving and it acts like a natural anti-depressant. I miss it everyday, but the same benefits can be found in other exercises such as cycling, swimming, and yoga.

What are some general tips to keep fit?

Just move and try to get your heart rate elevated (if you are allowed to, medically). You don’t have to run a half marathon or do an Ironman to be healthy. All you have to do is get out and move 30 minutes a day. It could be yoga, walking, lifting weights or more strenuous exercise.

Women have had to fight to get to where they are now. Being a fighter yourself, do you agree that women can pursue any career they want?

I do. I am a CEO, author, professor, mother and wife. I can’t say thank you enough to the women who came before me and blazed this path I’m walking. I hope that I can be a good mentor and advocate for those that come after me.

What should women keep in mind if they want to be a successful entrepreneur?

Its hard, but worth it. No one is perfect and it’s a good thing you aren’t either because the mistakes you make will make you better and smarter. Don’t try to do it all alone, build a community of people you can ask when you need help.

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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