Don’t put your heart health last on your to-do list

There was a time in the past year where Holly Shilstone, senior engagement associate for surgery at Baylor College of Medicine, was gathered with her siblings while both her parents were in and out of the hospital.

“I was talking with my two brothers and both said, ‘Please tell me you’ve had a full heart scan and work up recently,’” Shilstone said. “We had never talked about our heart health like this so I was surprised to find out that both my brothers were on statins, and with my family history, I should have known where I stood when it came to my own heart health.”

Stethoscope and blood pressure gauge lying on the ECG chartLike many women, Shilstone was not making her own health a priority even though she had annual checkups. She had aging parents needing care, active children of her own and her career. Her focus wasn’t on herself.

Holly knew off and on throughout the years she was considered borderline when it came to cholesterol levels at annual physicals by her internist yet not at a stage for medication. Having worked for years alongside some of the country’s top cardiothoracic surgeons at Baylor, she knew the stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: more than 44% of women in the United States are living with some form of heart disease; it is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., and it can affect women at any age.

“I never worried about what would happen if I had heart issues since I work with world-renowned cardiologists and cardiothoracic surgeons here at Baylor, but I should have been thinking about prevention,” she said.

When she started taking her heart health seriously, her first step was finding a doctor.

A friend referred me to a private cardiologist and it was not a good fit.

“I did not feel comfortable or heard. It is so important to seek second opinions when it comes to your health. You shouldn’t feel hesitant to advocate for yourself,” she said.

In doing so, Holly ended up making an appointment with Dr. John Farmer, professor of medicine -cardiology at Baylor.

“The entire process, from appointment scheduling, day-of testing and even follow up was so comforting. All my questions were answered, we discussed family history, each test was explained fully and I learned that some of the testing that is considered standard at Baylor isn’t always standard for other cardiologists. Knowing that I was getting a thorough workup made me feel more secure in making future health decisions.”

After talking with her Baylor cardiologist, Shilstone learned that she would be able to focus on diet changes to improve her health versus relying on medications. Baylor cardiologists say it is important to know what your baseline numbers are so you and your doctor can decide if medication is needed or if lifestyle changes can be relied on.

With her youngest brother’s advice, Shilstone changed her diet by replacing red and processed meats with other cuts of lean meats such as chicken and other protein foods, as well as increasing fruits and vegetables and only using natural sugars such as honey and brown nectar.

“I immediately felt a change, I had more energy and just felt better,” Shilstone said. “I don’t think I fully realized how changing my diet could change my life!”

Her most recent follow-up appointment showed significant results and proved to her that her efforts were leading to a positive change. Shilstone credits the smooth transition in her diet and activity level to her family. They saw what was important to her and supported her fully.

“We all saw how my parents’ lifestyles affected their health and well-being at the end of their lives. While some ailments are caused by genetics and others just can’t be controlled with diet alone, I was in a position where I could make those changes now to hopefully create a better outcome for myself and my family when I reach that stage in life,” Shilstone said.

While Shilstone and her brothers, as well as their respective families, are still healing from the loss of their father, she says taking control of her health and treating her body with respect is part of the healing process.

She added that not knowing where you stand with your health, especially heart health, is just not worth it.

“It is scary to think that something could be wrong with you, and you just don’t want to face it, but this isn’t something to mess with. This is your heart! I just want to make sure I keep myself healthy as best I can. I owe it myself and my family.”

Learn more about cardiovascular medicine at Baylor Medicine

By Gracie Gutierrez

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