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I'm a Young, Fit Spin Instructor—and Nearly Died of a Heart Attack

Mika Leah

Athletics were always my thing. I was playing soccer by age 5, and as a teen, I was the first one to try new fitness trends. I've always tried to take good care of my body. I rarely ate fast food, limited treats and exercised regularly. (I even lied about my age so I could get a gym membership before I was technically old enough!)

My passion for healthy living continued into adulthood. In 2006 when I was 29, I started teaching spin classes several times a week on top of my day job. Two years later I gave birth to my son, and then just a year after that, my daughter. I completed my first half marathon a few months after she was born at the age of 32.

Oh, and then I had a heart attack.

Well, almost. After I gave birth to my daughter, I'd started having chest pains and noticed I'd become out of breath easily when exercising. I went to see my doctor, but because I was young and super-fit I was told it was probably just stress-related. Nothing to worry about, she said. The truth is, I was really stressed out. I had two kids under two years old, a high-pressure job, and had just filed for divorce from my husband. (Be in the know: The Heart Attack Symptom You May Be Missing.)

On the day of my 33rd birthday, I decided to do what should have been an easy hike. I was with a friend who was out of shape and we hadn't even made it a mile when suddenly I found myself completely breathless with pain shooting down my left arm. All I could think was "Here I am, a fitness teacher, and he's a smoker who hardly ever exercises, and I can't even keep up with him!" But after that initial hard time I gave myself passed, I immediately realized something was very wrong and went straight to the doctor. She tried again to brush it off as stress but this time I held firm and told her I wasn't leaving without a referral to a cardiologist.

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The cardiologist also seemed doubtful anything was truly wrong with me, but I insisted on having an exercise stress test, which monitors your heart rhythm, breathing, and blood pressure while on a treadmill or stationary bike. The nurse didn't even let me finish, making me get off the treadmill and lie down. She said the doctor would be in touch within a couple of weeks with my results. He called 45 minutes later.

"You need surgery," he told me.

"When?" I asked.

"How fast can you get here?" he replied.

The results from the stress test discovered that the left main artery of my heart was 98 percent blocked (a condition referred to as "the widow maker" because it's so often lethal). As they prepped me for surgery to have stents implanted, all I could do was ask myself how something like this could happen to me—me? I had done everything right when it came to my health. If anyone should not have to worry about having a heart attack, it should be me, I thought.

While I didn't have many of the traditional risk factors you think of for heart disease—I wasn't overweight, I was young and female, I exercised and ate right—there was one major liability: genetics. My dad had his first heart attack at the age of 32 and my grandfather experienced a heart attack when he was young as well. Through this scary set of circumstances, I found out that I carried a gene for heart disease. The initial surgery saved my life, but after that, I knew then my whole life was going to change.

That was six years ago. Since then I've had three more surgeries, gotten five stents, and I'll probably need to have heart bypass surgery eventually. But while my brush with death was terrifying, I also learned a lot from it. Even though I had a healthy diet before, this experience led me to study my nutrition carefully, and I eventually decided to go completely vegan. (These Top 20 Artery-Cleaning Foods may also help.) Yes, people ask me if it's hard to give up meat and cheese, and I always say that it isn't. When you know your life pretty much depends on low cholesterol levels, you'd be surprised how easy it is to give up foods—even cheese. I'm also back to exercising. I'm teaching spinning twice a week, and doing yoga, and I've also added meditation.

The last piece of my recovery was figuring out how to take what I learned and use it to help other people. My experience inspired me to start Goomi, a business that brings on-site fitness and wellness directly to people at their work, school, or home, where it's most convenient for them. The passion project allows me to go into companies and teach fitness classes, do yoga, make smoothies, guide meditations, and provide massages. Most of my clients are first-time exercisers and watching their faces as they begin to really "get it" is an amazing experience. I want people to know it isn't about what you look like or even what you can do. It's not about being perfect or "doing everything right." It's about being happy and healthy. So even if you just give yourself 10 minutes to meditate, stretch, or work out, that's 10 minutes that proves your worth it. Your health is worth the effort, and every little bit makes a difference.

I believe everything happens for a reason. I can see the benefits of what I've learned in my children and in my clients. For me, staying healthy is a matter of life and death—but really, isn't that true for all of us?

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