PLATTSBURGH - Sandra Gothard wants people to know heart disease can happen to anyone.
Gothard, owner of Weight Management Inc., based in Plattsburgh and Saranac Lake, shared that message as featured speaker during the Go Red for Women Dinner Jan. 20, at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh Angell College Center. Gothard, who has also served as a professional registered nurse specializing in cardiac surgery, was born with congenital aortic stenosis, a condition in which the heart's aortic valve is narrowed and contains only two leaflets versus the normal three.
The 56-year-old Loon Lake woman said it was important to her to share her experience of having lived her entire life with heart disease and what she's gone through.
"I have known since I was a little girl that I would, at some point, need to have some surgery to repair that valve," said Gothard.
Though that didn't hold her back, she said. While growing up, Gothard's parents didn't let her condition prevent her from the activities she wanted to enjoy in her day-to-day life. For the most part, she was able to participate in games and sports like every other child her age.
"My mother and dad were so wonderful. They wanted me to do everything I wanted to do and didn't ever hold me back," she said.
Though Gothard couldn't participate in some more intense sports like field hockey, she said she was able to enjoy riding her bike, taking ballet, cheerleading and even participating in gymnastics.
In fact, it wasn't until her second pregnancy that Gothard began to have problems with her heart's aortic valve and needed it replaced.
"I was having this severe chest pain, this constant chest pain that wouldn't go away," recalled Gothard, who said she took immediate action. "And, usually when an aortic valve needs to be replaced, it needs to be replaced yesterday. It's a very powerful valve in our heart."
Gothard underwent a second surgery in 2004, this time to repair an aortic aneurysm that had been a result of the defective valve. Eventually, a pacemaker was installed because the surgeries had rendered ineffective the part of the heart that conducts electricity to keep it beating, she said.
Since her operations, life has been great, said Gothard. That's why she said she couldn't stress enough the importance of remaining ever vigilant about heart health.
"Your heart is really important, so, when it starts to have problems, you've got to take care of it," she said.
Gothard - who was joined by nationally-renowned speaker Eliz Greene, a heart disease survivor and author of "A Busy Woman's Guide to a Healthy Heart" - said events like the Go Red for Women Dinner are important for drawing attention to the American Heart Association's mission of promoting awareness and raising money to research and eradicate heart disease.
"The American Heart Association is so vital to the education and research and the technology that needs to go into understanding heart disease," said Gothard, who underscored its importance especially in women. "Women are in the workplace now where they weren't 30 years ago. They have the stressors that just the men were once faced with. Women do have heart disease; it's not a figment of their imagination, the way many, many physicians thought it was years ago."
Katherine McCarthy, senior regional director of communications for the local affiliate of the American Heart Association, said she was impressed by the overwhelming response from the community to the event, which sold out with more than 400 people in attendance.
"I think it's great, especially in these tough times to see people step up, attend the luncheon, contribute, purchase items from the silent auction. It really shows a commitment to heart health," said McCarthy.
The most important thing, aside from raising thousands for the American Heart Association, said McCarthy, was the message those in attendance took home from the event.
"[The speakers] were great," she said. "I think it's very moving to hear from people who have lived with heart disease or stroke. It reminds everyone that they're alive because someone funded the research to develop the technology that has kept them alive today."