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I missed the warning signs of congestive heart failure because I was so busy and stressed. Here's what I hope other working moms can learn from my example.

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Shannon Hennig. Shannon Hennig.

  • Shannon Hennig is a small business owner and health and wellness marketing expert.
  • Over the summer, she began experiencing serious fatigue, stiffness in her feet and legs, and chest pain and difficulty breathing. She tested negative for COVID-19, and was turned away at the ER after being told she had a chest cold.
  • In September, the 34-year-old was hospitalized for six days and given a diagnosis of congenital heart failure, a condition that primarily affects people ages 50 and up.
  • Hennig realized that being preoccupied with work, family, and worry over COVID-19, she’d overlooked her own physical wellness and pushed her symptoms aside as nothing serious.
  • Now, Hennig is working to improve her health, and cautions other working moms to check in with themselves more often to avoid making the same mistake.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In the beginning of 2020, I was a busy 34-year-old entrepreneur and working mom, living with my husband and son in Calgary, Canada. I’d spent the last five years growing a consulting side gig into a thriving full time business, working with practitioners in the health and wellness industries on their branding and marketing.

I had a lot to be proud of. In my first year bringing in over six figures in revenue, and I was easily on track to do the same in 2020. I had big plans to scale, build a more effective sales funnel and hire a team to support me. 

My goal was to increase revenue through building a signature program for private clients while also expanding my outreach to small business owners through an online teaching and coaching program. I hoped to begin working with hundreds of new clients.

One day in early September, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. with a distinctive gurgle in my chest. 

It sounded and felt like the kind of thing you get when you’re fighting a bad chest cold. 

All summer long I’d been feeling more run down, and more tired than ever before. I’d had cold and flu-like symptoms since July and had gained 12 pounds over the previous two weeks. My legs and feet were constantly puffy and stiff, and I had a noticeable shortness of breath when I’d climb my stairs. 

I described the level of fatigue to my husband as almost being “at a cellular level”, and no amount of napping or taking it easy seemed to alleviate my exhaustion. 

None of these symptoms made sense to me as I was active, eating a healthy diet and had lost 55 pounds over the previous year. During quarantine due to COVID-19, I’d prioritized my health the best I could and thought I was managing well.

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I was doing my best to navigate the realities of the pandemic and what it meant for my business, along with the challenge of my husband and I homeschooling our 6-year-old.

My busy daily routine began impacting my business in big ways. I no longer had the time to devote to client work and was struggling with deadlines that under normal circumstances had never been a problem. I also had no idea where I was going to find the time to teach my son.

In talking to peers and clients, it seemed like everyone was suffering from the same low level anxiety and exhaustion that I had. It wasn’t as if I was alone and unique in the physical and mental toll of juggling all the balls, so I pushed my health to the side.

My time was being poured into creating the business of my dreams, but I didn’t yet realize my lack of work-life balance was unsustainable.

Fast forward to that morning in September, and I knew that I needed to get help. I’d already been tested for COVID-19 and the results were negative, despite my symptoms matching those widely associated with the virus. I’d even been to the emergency department 10 days earlier complaining of the same issues, along with coughing up small amounts of blood, but was sent home and told that I had a chest cold.

In the emergency department, as I watched my blood pressure rise to deadly levels and my ability to breathe become less and less, I was given my diagnosis.

The doctor told me I had pulmonary edema, a condition where your lungs fill with fluid, and that I was in congestive heart failure.

There I was. A 34-year-old woman, sitting alone in the emergency department because COVID-19 visiting restrictions wouldn’t allow my husband to be with me, being told that right now, right in this moment, my heart was failing and I was dying.

What followed next was a whirlwind of emergency treatment to open my blood vessels, slow my heart and get oxygen into my body. An IV flow of heparin, a blood thinner, and nitroglycerin (a medication that helps relax blood vessels and allow blood to flow more easily to the heart) stabilized me before I was moved to the cardiac intensive care unit.

I was hospitalized for six days, where I learned that my heart was pumping at less than half the volume that it should. Further diagnostics showed that the primary cause was high blood pressure that had been uncontrolled for too long.

As I came to terms with my diagnosis, I immediately turned to Google to find out more about what I was up against, and I was stunned to see that the symptoms of heart failure mimic many of those of COVID-19 including shortness of breath and difficulty breathing, fatigue and weakness, and persistent cough and chest pain. I went on to learn that congestive heart failure also can cause rapid weight gain from fluid retention, coughing up blood, and swelling in your legs, ankles, and feet.

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I’d had symptoms of heart failure through the summer, but I was too busy with my business and worrying about COVID-19 to think of anything else. 

After a round of tests including an Echocardiogram and a cardiac MRI I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, which is a weakening or thickening of the heart muscle to the point where it can’t pump blood properly.

When it’s not being treated through medication, stress management, nutrition, and exercise, it can progress to advanced heart failure. 

According to the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), cardiomyopathy often goes undiagnosed, but as many as 1 in 500 adults in the United States may be living with the condition. When it’s not being treated through medication, stress management, nutrition, and exercise, it can progress to advanced heart failure. 

I knew that I had to completely reevaluate all aspects of my life if I was going to move forward.

Shannon Hennig Before and After Hospital 2020.JPG Hennig on the day before hospital admission and six days later after being discharged. In two weeks after being hospitalized, she lost 27 pounds of water and fluid build-up.

The stress of business ownership, motherhood, and COVID-19 had pushed me to the verge of utter collapse. I had many of the risk factors for cardiomyopathy but had no idea that this disease could affect someone my age with such deadly consequences. 

Since my diagnosis, I’ve made changes to better balance my work and family obligations and be more in tune with what my body is trying to tell me. To other busy working parents during this time, I encourage you to check in with your own physical and mental health just as you do with your loved ones, so you don’t miss a life-threatening diagnosis like I almost did.

Shannon Hennig is a freelance writer and health and wellness marketing professional. She is the president of OpenInk Solutions, of company that helps health and wellness professionals to build their personal brands and become thought thought leaders in industries. Follow her on Twitter.