The trouble started when I was 21, pregnant with my second child and working as a poker dealer in Atlantic City. I was at my poker table and started feeling dizzy and light-headed. I thought it was because of the pregnancy or because of the cigarette smoke in the air. I went to the casino nurse, who examined me and told me that my blood pressure was high—154/98. That was the first time anyone had ever said anything about my blood pressure. The nurse advised me to go the emergency room immediately, which I did. There, a doctor told me that I had pregnancy-induced hypertension. He didn’t put me on medication, but he did prescribe bed rest and told me to take it slow. Although I followed his instructions, I didn’t really take it seriously. Hypertension? What was that?
I didn’t know anyone with the condition, and I had no clue what it could do to my body. Other than that dizzy spell, I felt fine. I just figured that this hypertension thing would go away after I had the baby.
But it didn’t. About six months after I had my son, I was at work one night, at my table waiting for someone to sit down to play, when I started seeing spots and flashing lights in front of me. I thought maybe it’s the high blood pressure the nurse was talking about. This time when I went to the nurse, my pressure was 200/120. She sent me home and told me not to come back to work without a doctor’s note saying I was on medication—I was now a liability. What if I had fainted right there on the casino floor or something worse? That’s when I started taking my condition a little more seriously.
And it was really time for me to start paying attention. I was a single mother of two, overweight—220 pounds at 5 feet 4—and not eating properly. Because I worked nights, I would sleep all day and eat all night. I wasn’t exercising and my job could be stressful at times, with drunk people blaming me whenever they lost. All of this probably contributed to my hypertension.
My doctor put me on high dosages of medications, yet my pressure rarely dipped below 154/98. My doctor never came out and said that my pressure was high primarily because of the weight, but she did stress that losing weight would help. And she said I needed to stop smoking. I was up to a pack a day. I was also told that if I didn’t get my blood pressure under control, I was at risk for having a stroke.
Even with those warnings, it wasn’t until I found myself in the ICU a few years later—not from a stroke but because an out-of-the-blue allergic reaction to one of my medications caused my face and lips to swell so badly the doctors thought my tongue would also swell. Luckily I recovered, but the episode made me realize that hypertension was threatening my life. To make matters worse, I was still getting sent home from work, so now the condition was affecting my livelihood.
By this point I was up to 236 pounds and I’d had enough. I began seeing a nutritionist and a dietitian. I cut back on sodium, which I had never worried about in the past. I was a lunch-meat person—known to have three, four, five sandwiches a week. But I had to stop all that, and I cut out eating canned soups. Then I started exercising. Cardio workouts made my heart beat too fast, so I began doing Pilates and yoga tapes at home three times a week and walking two miles a few times a week. I had always been a quick-tempered person, so I also took a stress management class and learned about meditation, breathing techniques and chanting. Another big change: I stopped smoking. I ended up losing 50 pounds in seven months, and my pressure went down significantly to 128/89. My doctor was over-joyed and lowered my meds.
After 17 years I also retired from being a poker dealer. I no longer have to spend my nights in high-stress casinos. I’m in school and running a small publishing company with my husband of a year, Michael, who is an author.
Today, at 36, I’m maintaining a decent blood pressure and trying to lose another 15 pounds. My mental, physical and overall health seems to be at an all-time high and I love it. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get off my meds completely; maybe if I had begun aggressively fighting hypertension in my twenties that might have been possible. But I’m now keenly aware of my condition and realize it isn’t called the Silent Killer for nothing. I knew I had to help my body cope with this disease for my two boys as well as myself. I couldn’t just sit back and allow hypertension to take me away from them. I had to fight! Now I run hypertension; hypertension doesn’t run me.