For Immediate Release February 09, 2020

Ahmed Family

Humaa Ahmed and her family.

By: Donovan Conaway

Humaa Ahmed did everything in her power to avoid getting heart disease, but she could not escape her strong genes. The active mother and daycare provider went from healthy to needing emergency heart surgery, a quadruple bypass, in only three weeks.

Heart disease is a serious issue in Ahmed's family, so she knew her genetic risks. She was checked often and cautious with any symptoms.

"It's not like I just came to know; I knew it since day one," Ahmed said, of Severn. "I (had) been on a diet very vigorously. No sodium, rarely red meat, never a smoker or drinker. In my mind frame, I was like 'I am not going to get this thing until 60's or 70's.'"

Being a daycare provider for five years, Ahmed has to get checked regularly at a physician. And she wasn’t living a sedentary lifestyle. Ahmed would constantly have to run around the county for practices and games. Also, Ahmed volunteered at her Mosque on Sundays.

"Everything was fine, no blood pressure, no sugar, no cholesterol. Nothing, Nothing honestly," Ahmed said. "So I really don't have a single day for myself, even if you go to my Mosque, they would tell you they never see me sitting. They were literally shocked when they heard the news."

But that didn't stop her genetics.

"From the time she came to our office within three weeks, she went from people not believing she had heart disease to getting open-heart surgery and full bypass grafts," said Dr. Vasundhara Muthu, Cardiologist for the University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center.

Before Surgery

Ahmed was working at a convention in Harrisburg, PA, as a volunteer. She started to feel pain from the long walks and kept telling herself "something is wrong with me."

Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women and most racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For women, symptoms can present differently, Muthu said.

"Women have more subtle symptoms," Muthu said. "They won't feel well, have back pain, some nausea or shortness of breath, but they don't have the feeling of an elephant stepping on their chest."

Humaa's husband, Sohail Ahmed, told her she was tired from all the running around. She insisted something was wrong with her.

Ahmed returned from her time at the convention and checked into the emergency room at the Baltimore Washington hospital, where she was kept all night. But her results came back negative after an ECG, blood test, chest X-ray, an echocardiogram and a nuclear perfusion test. Despite those tests and her husband's continued assertions nothing was wrong, Ahmed pressed forward.

Following the ER visit, Ahmed visited Muthu who suggested a stress test for Ahmed. The exercise stress test lets your doctor know how your heart responds to being pushed. You'll walk on a treadmill or pedal a stationary bike.

After a minute, on the treadmill, Ahmed's heart rate spiked. A classic sign of heart disease is discomfort with exertion or the ability to reproduce the symptom with a certain amount of exertion, Muthu said.

The doctor ordered cholesterol and high blood pressure medicine for Ahmed. When they put the dye in for her stress test, the left side didn't dissolve, prompting Muthu to consider Ahmed's symptoms so concerning she suggested they go straight to cardiac catheterization. That procedure is used to diagnose and treat certain heart cardiovascular conditions.

Week of Surgery

Ahmed was set to get stents, something she is familiar with due to her family's history with heart disease.

But about 15 minutes into the process, a doctor told her she had three blockages in her heart.

"I was like 'What? this isn't right.' My brain isn't processing, I am like what is he talking about?" Ahmed said.

Ahmed had blockages in all three main arteries to the heart. She couldn't get stents, as they are usually used for discreet blockages and small areas, Muthu said.

Within 30 minutes, Ahmed was in the ambulance headed to the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Ahmed was in the hospital for a few days as doctors ran tests. A few days into her stay a doctor came and told Ahmed she had four blockages, one more than she was told at BWMC. Three on the left and one on the right.

"Half my brain is listening, the other half is not processing. I am just shocked," Ahmed said.

Doctors recommended Ahmed go home for a week and then return for surgery. Ahmed said several miracles occurred through this process: she didn't have a heart attack and one of her arteries managed to supply blood to the other side of her heart.

The other? The support from friends and family. People showed up to Ahmed's house to bring food, pray for her and her family and even provide donations. Cars were lined up down the street.

Ahmed said that kindness showed her the "miracle of God."

As the Friday surgery date drew closer, Ahmed's anxiety built up.

Friday is a holy day for Muslims. Friday prayers are an important part of the week and invoked as a sacred day of worship in a chapter of The Qur'an titled "al-Jumu`ah," meaning the day of the congregation.

"That night I couldn't sleep, we were just praying," Ahmed said. "Friday is the biggest day for being a Muslim, my angel was on Friday and my surgery was on Friday."

Post Surgery

When Ahmed thinks back on the surgery, she calls it a "Second life for me."

For someone as active as Ahmed, she had to ask for help in even minor situations such as changing her clothes or moving up and downstairs.

"A few days ago, I was on my feet. I didn't need anyone's help," Ahmed said. "I was taking care of my house, my daycare kids and people in Mosque. Now I am asking each and everyone for help, very devastating for me."

The Ahmed family was very thankful for her friends, family and community people, bringing her food and helping out for months.

After the surgery, Sohail Ahmed had to take over a lot of his wife's responsibilities. It gave him a greater appreciation of the work.

"There are many things you take for granted," he said. "I had to stay on top of a lot of things. Little things like doing laundry, fixing meals, cleaning up or taking care of the kids, she was doing these all the time. You don't consider those chores to be like major, but when you get to do it after a day of work, then you get to appreciate it more."

Samad, Ahmed's son, stepped up to help too.

"Before he went to school, he would come to me and say, 'Mom what do you want, I will make for you?'" Humaa Ahmed said. "Then before he left he would say, 'I want you to eat the breakfast.'"

Ahmed has been off of rehab for a month and is back to working her daycare, mainly due to medical bills. It also helps her stay active, or otherwise she would be in front of the TV, she said with a laugh.

Most of Ahmed's family live in Canada and the U.K., they were frustrated when they heard that she was back to work so soon. Both Canada and the U.K. have broad government-funded health care systems.

"That's because you all have a system in place," Ahmed said. "The government is paying for your bills and helping you. But, (America) they don't care and just send you the bills."

Ahmed's experience is a lesson for many about the importance of knowing the symptoms, family history, consulting with doctors and advocating for oneself.

"I think what helped her out a lot, was that she was so physically active with the daycare and caught the symptoms early," Muthu said.

Ahmed's advice to others: "Just listen to your body, ask early as possible."

"I am really thankful she was adamant about pursuing it," Sohail Ahmed said. "Otherwise the outcome could have been devastating. Never ever take chest pains lightly, better safe than sorry."

Preventing Heart Disease

About 1.5 million people in the U.S. have a heart attack or stroke each year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Its program, Million Hearts 2022, aims to prevent 1 million heart attacks and strokes within 5 years.

Unlike Ahmed, many people who are at high risk for heart attack or stroke don't know it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Doctors recommend individuals live a healthy lifestyle by avoiding smoking, choosing healthy food and drinks and maintaining a healthy weight alongside regular physical activity. The U.S. Surgeon General recommends adults get 2 hours and 30 minutes of exercise every week. This includes brisk walking and bicycling.

The CDC also recommends working alongside health professionals to check cholesterol, blood pressure and to manage diabetes, if applicable.

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