PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Life's all about turning adversity to opportunity.
A West Oak Lane woman shares her gripping experiences with heart failure and heart transplant to educate others.
Theresa Alexander's crash course in heart disease started while she was heading to work, with chest pains and breathing problems.
"I thought I was getting anxious because I was driving with traffic," she says, adding, "I thought maybe it was indigestion,"
Theresa made a U-turn and went straight to Temple University Hospital, where tests revealed a faulty mitral heart valve.
She received a pig valve, and went back to life, though her doctor noted "It was not IF I would need a heart transplant, but WHEN."
Just 7 years later, that first valve failed, so Theresa got a new valve, this time a mechanical one.
However, the valve replacements couldn't stop heart failure from progressing, and in early 2018, Theresa's doctor told her to begin the process of getting on the transplant list.
Dr. Eman Hamad, a heart failure specialist at Temple Health, says the 6 million Americans with heart failure now could soon be 10 million.
"So numbers are rising exponentially," says Dr. Hamad, adding that the number of younger women is rising,
But Dr. Hamad says many could be spared, first, by being aware they're at risk -
"Those are patients with diabetes, hypertension, smoking, obesity, etc."
Then, take action on those conditions -
"If we diagnose early, If we put them on appropriate medications, and if we educated them on how to care for themselves," says Dr. Hamad.
On Friday, February 16th, Temple's Rock Pavilion will host the 8th annual Heart Failure Awareness Day.
In addition to serious educational sessions, there'll be learning through fun.
"We have a wheel with questions and answers about small tidbits about heart failure and, what to eat and what to drink, and then you win a prize," she says.
"And then we have laughter yoga, it's just really great to learn how to de stress and just laugh," Dr. Hamad says, "It's really about how to live and how to de-stress."
The emphasis is on empowering the patient and creating a partnership with their Temple medical team.
"Just being aware that there's a chance of you to decrease your chances of developing a such a disease is extremely helpful," she notes.
"A lot of patients, when we bring them into these educational sessions, they learn from each other because they start asking, you know, how do you do this? And how do I do this, and they start actually educating each other," she adds.
Nurse practitioner Linda Ruppert says reduced-salt cooking demonstrations are always a hit at the Awareness Days, especially those tailored to various cultures.
Many spice blends uses in their dishes are heavy on salt.
"They can certainly have that same flavor. If they make this the special seasoning themselves. They put their own garlic their own little spices together but eliminate the salt. So this way, not you're helping the patient, but you're also helping the family," says Ruppert.
"We educate the family members that when they're preparing the foods, how to make better choices," she says of the event.
But she takes time at every visit to relay lessons on living with heart failure.
Theresa went onto the transplant list in October of 2018, but not a moment too soon.
On October 25ths, she awoke unable to breathe, and went to Temple University Hospital.
Her condition was so dire, doctors planned to put her on an LVAD, so she could stay healthy enough to get to transplant.
On October 30, as Theresa was waiting for her LVAD, a friend visited, praying at her bedside for a new heart.
Minutes after the friend left, and just as she was about to eat a meal, Theresa's transplant team came into the room an urged her not to eat because they'd found a new heart for her.
Theresa received her new heart on Halloween in what she says was "a treat, not a trick."
"Two or 3 days later, I was walking and talking and eating and everything," she says happily.
Now, she's busy with 3 young grandchildren, and helping Temple raise heart failure awareness.
"Whenever they call me. I'm right there," she says with enthusiasm.
Theresa is also an ambassador for Gift of Life, talking to others about organ donation.