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After a heart attack at age 62, Catherine Santorelli learned to listen to her body and be generous with herself

Feeling nauseous and like she had the flu, Catherine Santorelli, then 62, cut her New Year’s Eve celebration with family in Connecticut short and decided to drive home to Freeport.

She got as far as Kennebunk before a “wrenching pain”—the worst she’d ever experienced—gripped her chest. Sitting in her car at a rest stop, she fumbled for her phone, barely managing to call 911. As she lay on a stretcher near midnight at Maine Medical Center in Portland, she was afraid for her life for the first time ever. She had just had a heart attack and was alone.

“I was so scared,” says Santorelli, healthy and happy 10 years later. “I’d been taken to the ER and then to a cath lab, so I couldn’t call my family. I was crying. My mother had also had a heart attack at 62 and open-heart surgery. All I could think was that I really didn’t want that.”

Three artery stents later, as she recuperated, Santorelli started the long analysis of how she’d wound up in that situation. Looking back, she remembers thinking her life was happily full at the time. But she now realizes it was too full.

She’d been working full-time as a medical transcriptionist at Maine Med and considered herself in “great health.” She maintained a good weight, swam regularly, was taking a tai chi class, did ballroom dancing and yoga, walked daily and worked out at Portland Boxing Club (she comes from a close family that included two Golden Glove Champion brothers). She regularly socialized with friends.

But in addition to all that, she was frequently visiting her ill mother in Florida and traveling to see her daughter and granddaughters in Connecticut.

“Like so many women, I thought I was invincible. I should’ve been listening more to my body, but I didn’t.”

“I was doing too much, but it didn’t seem so at the time,” Santorelli says. “But in retrospect, I wasn’t giving myself enough down time. Like so many women, I thought I was invincible. I should’ve been listening more to my body, but I didn’t. I’d think ‘why am I tired?’ but then just figured I was getting older and push through. As women, we tend to think ‘I’m fine!’ until we’re knocked out. If I had a headache, I’d take an aspirin and work through it. Indigestion, I’d take a Rolaid. I was getting warning signs like this, but I was ignoring them.”

“Now I tell women that there’s no shame in telling your doctor, ‘I don’t feel quite right,’” she says. “I think at 60, especially if you have a family history like I did, you should ask for tests to make sure your heart is fine. You could possibly prevent a heart attack.”

After her experience, Santorelli says she learned to pay attention to the inner voice that she’d previously often ignored. That served her well two years ago when she started occasionally choking on food and feeling sick. Without hesitation, she went to her doctor with concerns, and it turns out she had thyroid cancer.

“It was another thing put in my life when I had to admit I wasn’t Wonder Woman. I had to give into being somewhat frail. You have to listen to your body and not tough it out. Don’t think you’re Wonder Woman! Because only Wonder Woman is Wonder Woman, and you’re just a normal human being.”

These health scares caused Santorelli to make significant changes.

“I’m not the same person now. I’m gluten-free and a vegetarian five days a week. I limit meat to two days a week. I drink alcohol very infrequently. I have decaf coffee. I’m a walker but don’t have to be speedy. I go up to three miles, but I’m happy to get one mile in. Instead of taking my car, I walk to my bank a half-mile away,” explains Santorelli, who now lives in Biddeford.

“I could be exercising more. But I do all the preventive things I can, and I feel that, at 72, I’m in the best health I could be in for someone my age.”

Santorelli says she feels better mentally, too, since recovering from a heart attack.

“It changed my perspective—like a smack upside my head,” she says, laughing. “I’m more introspective, calmer, less critical and more patient. I’m more relaxed and grateful. I’ve been accused of having Resting Smile Face, as opposed to the other resting face. I’m here, and I could’ve been gone that day. So I wake up and think, ‘Oh! I got another day!’ I am better able to enjoy what I’m doing right now.”

Santorelli urges people, especially women, to be their own health advocates.

“A lot of people expect their doctor to take care of them. But your doctor is just a resource. You need to take care of you.”

Patricia McCarthy is a long-time writer and editor. She has three daughters, lives in Cape Elizabeth, and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).

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