Heart To Heart with Carrie Lehtonen

Updated:Oct 11,2016

American Health Association volunteer Carrie Lehtonen had a major scare when a blood clot in her coronary artery resulted in a myocardial infarction. For a lot of people in her life, Carrie was the last person that anyone would have anticipated to have a heart attack. She was 31 years old and a competitive triathlete that was in excellent shape.

Fortunately, Carrie made a full recovery from her heart attack and educates others as part of her daily routine. As the founder of WholeHearted Health, she is a Holistic Health Practitioner, a Registered Yoga Teacher, and certified by the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. In working with the American Heart Association for several years, she was part of the effort to ban trans fats from school lunches. Another notable accomplishment of Carrie’s is that she organized the WholeHearted Bike Tour event, which originated in Colorado in 2013 and raises funds for the AHA.

Carrie kindly took the time to speak to the AHA about life as both a heart disease survivor and health coach. She can be followed on Twitter via the handle @healthwithheart.

How did you first get involved with the American Heart Association?

Carrie: The American Heart Association reached out to me to hear my story after learning about my heart attack and I ended up being the featured survivor at the luncheon that year. Ever since I have been volunteering with the AHA, and also acted as co-chair of the Passion Committee for two years.

Before organizing a bike event in 2013, had you ever run a charity event before? What was the biggest challenge on putting on an event like that?

Carrie: The WholeHearted Bike Tour was the first time I had organized a charity event. The biggest challenge was juggling all of the to-do items for the event while still working full-time and keeping up with all of my other hobbies and activities. It wouldn't have been possible without the passionate volunteers who helped with the logistics, the donations from local businesses, and the advice of others who had experience planning events.

Over the past few years, has there been a personal highlight for you in your work with the AHA?

Carrie: I have enjoyed sharing my story at multiple AHA events, and reminding people that women are at just as much risk of heart disease as men, and that the symptoms of a heart attack are different for women and may be subtle. When women approach me after I share my story and tell me that it has made a difference for them in some way, it makes all that I went through worth it.

One of the most special experiences for me was testifying in favor of the bill to remove trans fats from school lunches. I was nervous to speak in front of the House Education Committee because I didn't have any experience with the political process, but I was elated when I heard that the bill was passed. That proof that we were heard by our representatives felt like an incredible achievement.

If someone were considering getting involved with the AHA as a volunteer, what would be a good way for them to start? Are you personally seeking any assistance with any of your AHA-related events or programs?

Carrie: A good first step is to visit heart.org and check out the local events, and contact the local chapter to express interest in volunteering. A fun way to get started is to create a team of friends, family and/or coworkers for the Heart and Stroke Walk -- Denver's walk is on June 4. The event is fantastic and there's no registration fee.

I'm undecided on whether the WholeHearted Bike Tour will happen this year due to my hectic schedule, but people can check out the events page of my website (wholeheartedhealth.com) to find out more. The ride has been held in July the past few years.

Do you feel that there are any misconceptions about the AHA?

Carrie: I have found the organization to be much more than I ever expected. I knew the AHA held events to educate people about heart disease, but I had no idea how committed the AHA is to research, their involvement in policy, and how much support they provide to not only survivors and those at risk of heart disease, but also doctors, caregivers and educators. The website is full of great resources and a plethora of ways to get involved. The AHA has provided me with a way to feel connected and supported, and given me a sense of purpose - to encourage others to proactively care for their heart and listen to their body.

What do you wish more people knew about heart disease?

Carrie: I wish people knew that their family history doesn't mean that they have to be a victim of heart disease. They can proactively protect their hearts. I was appalled to learn that heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, and that 80% of heart disease is preventable with lifestyle changes. That means that our habits can make a huge difference and save lives! It's also important to be your own advocate and educate yourself about risk factors, symptoms of heart attack, and things that you can do to be heart-healthy without resorting to medication.

How long did it take for you to recover before feeling 100% again?

Carrie: The biggest struggle for me was all of the medication that I had to take following my heart attack. I've always had low blood pressure, so the beta blockers that I was prescribed caused me to get light-headed -- and I nearly fainted on one occasion! I was covered in bruises from being on blood thinners, and had a pill box that was certainly bigger than anyone else my age.

However, it wasn't long before I could start exercising again. I was lucky that I had been so physically-active previously, which meant that my heart muscle was strong and recovered well. A year after my heart attack, I competed in a triathlon and performed better than I had in the race that I did the year before my heart attack. I also went back and rode my bike up Lefthand Canyon to Ward -- the steep route that I was riding the day of my heart attack -- and made it to the top without having to get off my bike at all. 
Since overcoming your health issues, how was your life changed? Has your daily routine changed much?

Carrie: The biggest changes have been my work, my diet and my priorities. I created my own company, WholeHearted Health Ltd., to help others make health a habit. I provide individual and group health-coaching programs, nutrition and wellness workshops for corporations, private and group yoga classes, and yoga adventure retreats.

I have transitioned to a completely plant-based diet, and am able to keep my cholesterol at an acceptable level that my cardiologist has agreed to keep me off statin drugs. I have learned to manage my stress by keeping my priorities in line with my values. I find time nearly every day for exercise, my vacations are true getaways -- I completely check out -- I cook most meals, and spend quality time with my loved ones. 
Is there a particular life philosophy that you live by? Or any kind of quote that sums up your approach to living your life?

Carrie: It's hard for me to pick just one, but the three quotes that are posted on my refrigerator are:

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us" - Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it." -Goethe

"Risk more than others think is safe. Care more than others think is wise. Dream more than others think is practical. Expect more than others think is possible." -Cadet Maxim

Is there a book that helped shape the way you approach maintaining good health? Or a particular influence?

Carrie: The book that had the biggest impact for me was Prevent And Reverse Heart Disease by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr. It was the book that opened my eyes to the importance of a plant-based diet for heart health, and gave me the courage to ask my cardiologist to agree to let me stop taking a prescription statin.

When you're not busy with your work, how do you ideally like to spend your free time?

Carrie: I love being outside and enjoying all that the mountains of Colorado have to offer. In the summer I spend a lot of time biking, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding and hiking, and in the winter I snowshoe -- when I'm not traveling to tropical places to scuba dive. Yoga is a big part of my life, so I practice or teach yoga most every day.

By Darren Paltrowitz