When a medical technician demonstrating to a high school class how to check blood pressure asked for a volunteer, 15-year-old Katie Moegenberg got the nod.
The man took the reading, then told her, “Whoa, your blood pressure is kind of high. We’ll need to tell your parents.”
A doctor’s visit confirmed she had high blood pressure, also called hypertension. A cardiologist said it was likely genetic.
Katie’s paternal grandfather died of a massive heart attack at age 38. An uncle had his first heart attack at age 25; he later died from a heart attack at age 52.
Katie was put on medication and told to see a primary care physician and cardiologist annually. That’s all the advice she remembers getting.
In her late teens, Katie started experiencing what she thought were fierce bouts of anxiety. She often felt physically tense, with burning in her shoulders and neck and a feeling of impending doom.
In her 20s and early 30s, she frequently had what seemed like panic attacks. These resulted in dozens of trips to the emergency room. Each time, the diagnosis was always the same: anxiety.
As a young woman who appeared healthy, Katie felt that doctors were not taking her symptoms seriously. Along the way, she became a licensed practical nurse and worked in a hospital.
“I knew something was not right with me,” she said. “I felt like they were thinking, ‘Here she goes again.'”
In December 2019, Katie, then 37 and living in Suffolk, Virginia, was feeling particularly tired and out of sorts.
She had stopped working several years earlier to raise a family. She had two children of her own and helped raise two others from her second husband, Matthew Moegenberg.
That winter, she had been dieting to shed a few pounds, but the scale didn’t budge. She also had what she thought was indigestion, even though antacids didn’t provide any relief.
If she felt particularly stressed, her chest hurt. The pain subsided when she relaxed. For several months, she had episodes of escalating chest pain and nausea, but they always went away.
“You just had a stress test the previous year, and it was fine,” her primary care doctor told her. “I think you’re just having anxiety and indigestion.”
Katie wasn’t convinced, but she also wanted to believe it was nothing worse.
One day in March 2020, she woke up feeling more pressure on her heart than ever before. It was as if the muscle was cramping. She again felt nauseous and went to her cardiologist’s office.
After 2 minutes of administering a treadmill stress test, the doctor stopped it.
“Your main artery is blocked, and you need to go to the hospital now,” he told her. He said she was not having a heart attack, but one was likely on its way.
At the hospital, the cardiologist told Katie that one of her heart’s arteries was 99% blocked and that the blockage was too tight to insert a stent. She needed emergency open-heart surgery.
“I can’t do it,” she said to the doctor.
“You’re not going to make it if you don’t,” he told her.
Matthew arrived to find Katie wracked with fear. Through tears, she asked him to take care of the children.
“Everything’s going to be fine,” he told her. Although now two years later, he admits that “in the back of my mind, I didn’t believe it.”
Katie underwent a bypass operation to restore blood flow to her heart. When she woke up the next day, COVID-19 pandemic restrictions had just gone into place, which meant she could not have visitors.
After a week in the hospital, Katie went home to recover.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through,” she said. “Not only was it painful, but I had a lot of guilt that I did this to myself and anger toward doctors. But as time went on and my body started going back to normal – my new normal – my feelings turned more toward gratitude.”
Katie said it took about half a year to feel like herself again. Because of the pandemic, she couldn’t do in-person physical therapy. So she slowly increased her physical activities on her own.
She also drastically changed her lifestyle. She quit smoking and cleaned up her diet, cutting out red meat, snack foods and sodas.
However, in part because of the heart medication she was on, she gained 80 pounds within a year, straining her heart. This past March, she had gastric bypass surgery.
She’s now lost most of the weight she had gained, and her blood pressure is under control. She eats a strict diet of lean protein and vegetables. For exercise, she walks, swims and lifts weights.
“I don’t have panic attacks or that tense feeling in my body anymore,” she said. “That feels amazing.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that fixing her heart solved her anxiety. Doctors said the panicky sensations likely were caused by her body working on overdrive to compensate for her heart condition.
Matthew jokes that now he’s the one with anxiety.
“I don’t want her out without me,” he said. “I’m always saying, ‘Where are you going, what are you doing? Don’t lift this, don’t lift that.’ One thing it did teach me is that not one thing in life is guaranteed.”
Katie hopes that women especially will remember to take care of themselves along with taking care of others.
“Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, and you don’t have to be old to have it,” she said. “I am certainly an example of that. Now I am thankful every single day that I’m here.”
Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.
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