Dear Madison and Hunter,

Happy Valentine’s Day! February is special because it’s heart month and gives me the opportunity to reflect on my experiences living with heart disease. I know that you are both too young to read or understand this (at 3 and 5), but hopefully one day I can share some of the things I have learned from my heart attack with you.

As you both will come to know, five days after Hunter was born, while at home, I suddenly started having chest pain, was rushed to the hospital, learned that I was having a SCAD (spontaneous coronary artery dissection) heart attack, I had to have emergency open-heart surgery to restore blood flow to my heart. Mommy takes great care of herself, and I had never been to the hospital except to have both of you. It was quite a shock to learn I was sick and in heart failure.

I was so scared to think that I may not be here to see you both grow up. I cherish our pretend ice cream dates, walks to the playground and tickle fights. I love you both so much and have such high hopes for your future health, happiness and success. I wanted to be a part of everything to come, but my future was uncertain. 

Miraculously, with a lot of hard work and help, I got better and my heart function returned. This allowed me to do all the things with you both that I sorely missed because of my heart attack, like run through the playground, pick you both up and cuddle you (I had lifting restrictions) and having the stamina to take care of you both.

After my heart attack, I started keeping a diary at my bedside to record notes to both of you that daddy could read to you in the event I am no longer here. I would like to share some of the contents of that diary. My hope is that you both can gain at least an ounce of wisdom from Mommy’s experiences.

1. Turning my situation into an opportunity

Control what you can, but accept those things you cannot control. This is a constant challenge for me, and I have to remind myself of this one daily. I like to control everything and prefer organization and order as much as possible. I will spend hours going over a problem in my head trying to fix it. I am an attorney by trade so fixing things is (arguably) in my DNA. When I got sick, I realized how little I actually could control.

As cliché as it sounds, I realized the fragile, fleeting nature of life. There are no guarantees that you or I will be here tomorrow, and I have been told that I could have another SCAD heart attack at any time. I learned to accept that I cannot control whether I have another heart attack and that’s OK.

I remind myself frequently of the wise words of Charles Swindoll, “Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it … We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.” 

My “impossible situation” afforded me a great opportunity. Sharing my story with Novant Health and the American Heart Association has been cathartic, and, most importantly, I continue to work to increase heart disease awareness and funding that will benefit many others. In addition to speaking and donating to heart causes, I have enrolled in a cutting edge clinical study aimed at learning more about SCAD, with the hope that future generations will be better able to diagnose and treat SCAD. Supporting the American Heart Association and participating in research studies have given my life greater meaning and helped me feel more in control. I hope you both accept what you cannot control but discover the light in impossible situations. There is always a silver lining, even if it’s not apparent at first.

2. Always listen to your body

You know your body better than anyone. Advocate for yourself when necessary. Never give up.

Through my conversations with many other SCAD survivors, I hear the same theme: Survivors with the best outcomes listened to their bodies and received timely care. They advocated for themselves when doctors dismissed them because they did not look like typical heart attack patients. They knew something was wrong despite a lack of heart disease risk factors, and they kept pushing.

Trust yourself, you know your body and when something isn’t right. Timing is everything, and it could impact your future quality of life in the event of an emergency.

 3. Figuring out life’s priorities

Focus on what truly matters. Don’t let little things take up too much time in your life. It may seem like getting that new  purse or forgetting your grocery list at home matters, but they don’t. There is nothing like waking up from open heart surgery and being told you are in heart failure to bring what’s really important into focus.

Lauren Dungan kids  at beach
Madison and Hunter Dungan

After my heart attack, material items and to-do lists didn’t matter to me anymore. All that mattered was time with those I loved. I started to think about my legacy, too. What am I leaving behind for future generations?

The further removed I get from my heart attack, the more I struggle with remembering what really matters. I find I fall back into a false sense of security that I have a great deal of time left. I try to remember how I felt waking up in the hospital and carry that with me.

My heart attack taught me an important lesson: Focus your time on what matters to you. And use defining moments to ground you in that reality.

Happy Valentine’s Day and heart month, my babies. Mommy loves you more and am thankful for every moment with you both.

Lauren Dungan lives in Cornelius, North Carolina with her husband, Evan, their two children, Madison and Hunter, and dog, Bella. She currently works in compliance at Wells Fargo. To connect with other local SCAD survivors, Lauren has started an active Facebook group called ‘North Carolina SCAD Survivors.’