Carol Caballero and cardiac surgeon, Rawn Salenger, MD

If you were to picture the person least likely to have a heart attack, Carol Caballero, a 53-year-old wife and mother of two boys, is who you would see. A slender woman who never misses her three-mile morning walk, makes healthy food choices and has no history of cardiac risk, Carol could not imagine having a serious heart problem. But, in February 2016, a persistent tightness in her chest on her morning walks could not be ignored.

A stress test, ordered by Carol's internist, was halted before completion when the cardiologist told Carol she was being immediately transferred by ambulance to the Heart Institute at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center for further evaluation. "I was in such a state of denial that I told my husband not to come to St. Joe's, but instead make sure he saw our son off to his winter dance," Carol says, shaking her head ruefully. This mindset reflects that of so many women in early middle age. With aging parents to care for, a family of her own and a demanding career, Carol just accepted stress as a normal part of life, always the caregiver, never the one needing care.

That attitude changed forever when she arrived at UM St. Joseph. Interventional cardiologist, Henry Sun, MD found that Carol's left anterior descending artery – "The Widowmaker" - was 95% blocked and open heart surgery was needed – and soon. Cardiac surgeon, Rawn Salenger, MD, replaced the occluded artery with a grafted artery from her chest wall that allowed the blood to flow back into her heart.

"I am beyond thankful to everyone at St. Joe's," Carol says. "The occupational and physical therapists, along with the nurses and my excellent doctors were truly amazing. There was even a silver lining in this cloud – I had to complete 16 weeks of rehab at St. Joe's CV Fitness Center. I thought it would be so depressing – I still thought I was too young to have had a bypass – but I made some wonderful friends in rehab and we still get together today!" smiles Carol.

One year later, Carol is back doing her regular walks, has returned to her job at Leidos Biomedical Research and is enjoying a life all the more sweet from having been so close to losing it. But Carol has made one important change: "We all need to practice self-care. When we're overwhelmed, we need to take stock and figure out a way to reduce the stress." Sound advice everyone should take to heart.

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