February is Heart Health Month and as part of the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women campaign, Amanda DeJesus, a 28-year-old chef from Houston, Texas is sharing her experience with heart disease. She was born with a hole in her heart and had open-heart surgery at just 7 years old, then at 13 she was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy and at 15 she had a heart transplant.
“I became an adult the day I got my new heart because that’s when I learned how to advocate for myself and really take control,” says DeJesus. Many times your family tries to be empathetic and they try to understand what you’re going through, and for DeJesus, it was her mom and her sister that were there for her, but still she had to learn how to live a healthy lifestyle all on her own.
“I was taking 28 pills a day and I had to be very careful with my immune system because, in order for the transplant to take, you have to suppress your immune system, so I couldn’t be around germs, I couldn’t even shake people’s hands without having to wash my hands afterwards,” she says. Whenever another student was sick, she had to be moved away from them, so it was very difficult for her.
“This wasn’t a typical 15 year-olds experience. I had to worry about a heart healthy lifestyle, so I had to be careful about what I ate and it was difficult when everyone around me was having fast food after school because I couldn’t do that.” While her peers worried about what they were going to wear for homecoming, she was worried about if she remembered to take her medicine that day.
Before she got on the list for a heart transplant she was on a heart healthy no-salt diet and had to be very careful with that because eating too much of it would cause her to retain fluid, then after her transplant, she had a low-sodium diet and only saw a dietician briefly. “I was crying because I didn’t know what to eat,” she explains. “I come from a very Puerto Rican family, my grandma lived with us, and she’s old school from the island, worships the pig and it was very difficult explaining to her that I couldn’t have salt.”
She struggled with finding the right foods to eat and she was so young and didn’t know much about food, which is what motivated her to educate herself about healthy eating and inspired her to become a chef. “I didn’t know anything about vegetables, to us corn was a vegetable because that’s how I was raised,” says DeJesus.