Ever since Ashli Stewart was a kid, people have told her that she's old at heart.
Raised by a single mother, Stewart often made dinner and helped her little brother with his homework. Today, as a mother of three and an executive assistant for a company in Bakersfield, California, she still considers herself a "fixer" of other people's problems.
"I'm just wired that way," Stewart said. "It's part of my personality to stay logical, reasonable and rational."
She took the same approach with her own health.
After years of yo-yo dieting, she stopped eating red meat and fried foods, cut down on processed carbs and started working out four times per week. The next time she stepped on a scale, she had lost 25 pounds. Within one year, she dropped nearly 25 more.
"You give up a lot, so it was really nice to see that the hard work was paying off," Stewart said.
One day during her workout, she felt a burning sensation in her chest. Unconcerned, she pushed through it and completed her routine.
During her next workout, it happened again.
Researching her symptoms online, Stewart became increasingly worried as website after website advised her to call 911 or go straight to the emergency room. Instead, she visited urgent care, where she received a chest X-ray and an electrocardiogram. They told her everything was fine and to return if the pain got any worse.
It did get worse.
Just sitting on her sofa, her chest felt tight. Other times, pain shot down her arm. At her second visit to urgent care, they diagnosed her with exercise-induced asthma and prescribed a drug that can increase heart rate. Her symptoms only became more severe.
A few weeks later, Stewart visited a primary care physician. She urged him to consider her high blood pressure and her family history of heart disease: Her grandfather died of a heart attack at 47 and an uncle died after open-heart surgery.
A stress echocardiogram showed her heart wasn't pumping enough blood. She would need to consult with a cardiologist within 24 hours.
"At this point, I was shaking and having a panic attack," said Stewart, who was only 32 at the time. "How do we fix this?"
Dr. Viral Mehta, an interventional cardiologist, scheduled an angiogram to get a better look at Stewart's heart. When they began the procedure, Mehta and his team chatted jovially. The tone changed when they got a closer look at her heart.
Her left anterior descending artery, the so-called "widow maker," was 100% blocked, and she had a 70% blockage in another artery.
Mehta immediately performed a balloon angioplasty and placed two stents.
"She is extremely lucky that she did not have a very adverse outcome," he said. "The most adverse outcomes would be heart attack or sudden death."
Symptom-free since the procedure in 2016, Stewart has continued to eat a healthy diet and educate her family about their history of heart disease. She also reconnected and fell in love with an old childhood friend. They live together and have a 2-year-old son, Jace, who has no trouble keeping up with his older brothers, 12-year-old Bradley and 11-year-old Jerry Lee.
Stewart believes her youth and gender made doctors overlook obvious symptoms of heart disease. To raise awareness that heart disease can happen to anybody, she became involved with the American Heart Association, speaking at the 2019 Kern County and Central Valley Go Red for Women luncheons.
"I want people to know their numbers and know their bodies so they can be advocates for themselves and push through wrong diagnoses," she said. "We have to get away from these stereotypes, because they are killing people."
Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.
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