Eve Walker’s story is a cautionary tale about keeping family health secrets.
When Eve Walker was 12, she lost her sister Louise to a devastating tragedy.
Eve looked up to 16-year-old Louise. “She was so beautiful and so popular. But we fought like cats and dogs," Eve laughs. One night, Louise left the house to go to a party. Next thing Eve remembers, her parents were screaming.
“They rushed out the door,” she says. “When my parents came back, they told us that my sister had died.” Devastated, the Walkers grieved silently — never explaining to Eve what, exactly, had happened to Louise.
Flash-forward nearly 16 years to when Eve started having odd, unexplainable symptoms — tiredness, tingling — that left her feeling unsettled. Because her parents had never explained the cause of Louise's death, it didn't occur to Eve that her symptoms might be related.
All photos courtesy of Eve Walker.
As her symptoms continued to increase, Eve thought them odd but not enough to be concerned. She ignored them — until she couldn't.
It started with having a hard time climbing stairs and inclines. Her breath became labored even though she was perfectly fit. She felt strange and fatigued.
One day, her legs seemed to stop working. “I could barely pick them up. They felt like steel,” she says.
Her symptoms persisted, and Eve persisted in ignoring them.
Then one night it all came together. “I felt like something bit me on my leg,” she says. “It was a pain that shot up my leg and my arm and I remember feeling it in my face and my jaw.” That’s when all of her symptoms — the shortness of breath, the heaviness in her limbs, the tingling pain in her body — suddenly clicked.
She called a neighbor and said, “I think I’m having a heart attack.”
Luckily, Eve made it to the hospital in time to get help — and to learn what had been causing her strange symptoms for so long.
“They told me I’d had a heart attack, and they told me I had heart disease,” Eve says. She learned that she had been living with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease that makes the heart muscle abnormally thick and makes it difficult for the body to pump blood.
She started on medication, became more careful with her diet, avoided placing a strain on her body with rigorous exercise, and committed to keeping the doctor’s appointments necessary to making sure she wasn’t in danger of a cardiac event. Ultimately, she had a defibrillator put in that would restart her heart automatically should anything happen.
It was around that time that a doctor also had her finally look into her family history.
“It wasn’t until I was 40 years old that I learned my sister died of heart disease,” Eve says.
Had she known all along what had happened to Louise, Eve might have been able to get checked for her own symptoms earlier and avoided the narrow miss of her heart attack entirely. As it stands, she’s lucky to be here today.
Though she wishes she’d known about her family’s secret, Eve understands why her parents didn’t share it. “I didn’t blame them,” she says. “I mean, they lost a child. Maybe it was just too painful to talk about. Maybe they didn’t have the right words.”
Now, Eve dedicates her time to making sure others know the dangers of not looking into your family’s past.
She’s a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association's “Go Red for Women” initiative, which is working to help end heart disease and strokes among women. And she’s already seen her work pay off firsthand.
“One of the women was with us as an advocate because her mother died of a heart attack,” Eve says. One evening, when the group found out that the woman herself had not been checked for her own heart health, Eve urged her to do so. “Sure enough, she had some sort of heart disease and needed to get on medication immediately.”
For many families and individuals, looking into potentially dangerous health history can be scary, so it's avoided. But Eve says it's better to just bite the bullet. Know your four health numbers — your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and Body Mass Index (BMI) — and get regular check-ups, especially if you're feeling strange. Don't put off seeing a doctor.
"You've got to face it to fix it," Eve says. "That's the bottom line!"
Learn more about how to take control of your health at Cigna.com/TakeControl.