After a bone marrow stem cell transplant and heart transplant, 46-year-old Jessica Renfeldt exercises five days a week to keep her new heart healthy and strong. She is in cardiac rehab and recently climbed the stairs at Intermountain Medical Center as part of her training. (Family photo)
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SANDY — Recent studies show more women are at risk for increased heart disease during the pandemic. It’s a sobering reminder this February, during National Heart Health Month. One Sandy woman is making her heart health a priority after battling a blood cancer that put her into heart failure.
After five years in and out of the hospital, 46-year-old Jessica Renfeldt is just happy to live somewhat of a normal life again. It all started in the fall of 2016.
“I just felt horrible, like I was really exhausted. I had really bad swelling in my legs and my abdomen. I got a bronchitis that I just couldn’t get over. When I laid down, I could hear crackling in my chest. I knew there was something wrong,” she described.
After struggling to walk around Hogle Zoo one day with her family, they determined Renfeldt was exhibiting several signs of heart failure.
“It was super scary,” she said.
She went back to her primary care physician again and finally had a series of tests done including an EKG and echocardiogram.
“The technician that was doing it knew that there was something gravely wrong with my heart at that point,” she said. “Before I left the hospital that day, the cardiologist had me diagnosed with cardiac AL amyloidosis. I could barely breathe. It was… just hit to the gut.”
Cardiac light chain amyloidosis, or AL amyloidosis, is an aggressive blood cancer that creates misfolded proteins in the blood which coagulate and attack major organs in the body. In this case, it damaged Renfeldt’s heart.
“So with a stiff heart, you can’t push as much blood flow through the heart as you need to actually operate your whole system,” she explained.
After a month of chemotherapy, she had a full bone marrow stem cell transplant in December of 2016. She did an additional 10 months of chemotherapy before her doctor said she was in hematologic remission. Though her immune system was sustained, her heart was still impaired and she had a stroke from the complications in January 2020. Her doctor told her she only had a couple of years left to live with her current heart.
She was placed on a heart transplant list and eventually admitted to the hospital on June 23, 2021, and waited 78 days before she finally got a new heart just five months ago on Sept. 9, 2021.
Stacey Frampton, a nurse practitioner with the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute, says though Renfeldt’s situation is unique, a third of women will die from heart disease. She says it remains the leading cause of death for both men and women.
“People are struggling with heart problems all across the state, all across the country. Oftentimes, they don’t even realize that they have heart problems,” she said.
Though many think of heart disease as a male problem, she says it is very much a female problem too. Frampton says women also have blockages in the arteries of their heart that lead to further complications.
The number of women with hypertension alone is also on the rise.
“We call it the silent killer, because most people don’t know they have it unless they’re checking,” Frampton said.
More than half of people have high blood pressure by their 50s and 60s, according to Frampton.
The good news is Frampton says certain steps can lower someone’s risk of heart disease, like not smoking, keeping your blood pressure, blood sugars and cholesterol in check, and exercising. She also says medication is an important way to control blood pressure.
“About a third of us don’t do really much activity at all. Even just walking around the block can make a big difference,” she said. “If you have a dog, take your dog for a walk around the block. … It doesn’t have to be vigorous exercise.”
Renfeldt works out five times a week including both resistance and cardio training, and eats healthy.
“I do my best to kind of limit red meat to maybe once or twice a week. I still am supposed to monitor my salt intake, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, healthy oils like avocado (and) olive oil,” she said.
Frampton says reducing stress is also key to heart health, especially during the pandemic.
“We’re not interacting with people as much in ways that bring us good things, that bring us happiness,” she said. “We’re kind of all locked down, maybe eating more packaged foods, maybe ordering in as opposed to getting out and walking and having normal interaction.”
“Find your outlet. Find something that makes you feel good, that makes you happy — whether that’s going for a hike, or talking to your family members,” Frampton encouraged.
“We do that through a lot of laughter in our house,” Renfeldt said. “(We) watch funny movies, listen to music, dance, play, have fun as much as possible. I like to read a lot and just make sure I’m taking the downtime to be present and not get wound up in the daily stresses of life, which isn’t always easy.”
Practicing mindfulness, meditation, or journaling are also helpful strategies, Frampton said.
“Something that’s really helped as far as the pandemic goes, is I keep in good touch with several friends … and just checking in and saying, ‘Hey, you know, how are you doing right now?'” Renfeldt said.
Today, Renfeldt is determined to care for her new heart and enjoy life with her three daughters.
“Before my feet hit the floor every morning, I think of how grateful I am for… oh, goodness, just being here,” she said. “(I’m) so grateful to my donor. I realize that’s the greatest gift anybody could receive and I would hope that I am living a life that that person would be proud of.”
She encourages other women to not delay seeking care if they think something is wrong.
“Don’t leave the office until you feel heard, because I think sometimes we just sweep it under the rug and think that maybe we are the crazy ones,” she said.
Though women often wear many hats as caregivers for their family in addition to work and other responsibilities, Frampton says it’s crucial for women to put their needs first.
“You got to take care of yourself or you can’t take care of anybody,” she said.
She encourages people to familiarize themselves with their family history since some people are born with genes that make them prone to heart disease. Frampton says it’s important for people to check their blood pressure regularly and to partner with a medical provider to help them live a heart-healthy lifestyle.
“‘Hey, I’m worried about my cardiovascular risk factors. Tell me what I can do to decrease my risk. Do I have cholesterol? Is my blood sugar maybe borderline?'” she suggests asking a physician.
“If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, don’t beat yourself up about it, but make a plan to figure out how you’re going to kick it because no amount of smoking is safe,” Frampton said.
She says weight is also an important factor in heart health.
“Unfortunately, 60 to 80% of women are overweight and that takes its toll,” Frampton said.