Lee Pryke learned the hard way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It started in November 2005 with shortness of breath and fluid retention. Doctors dismissed her symptoms as asthma related to her overweight condition, but they continued to worsen. “The more water I retained the harder it was to get around,” she shares, “so eventually I just stalled.”
“My doctor had spent the last year and a half telling me to lose weight, and God knows I was trying,” Lee continues, “I was under a tremendous amount of stress in my work and personal life. In October 2006 I started working with a nutritionist-personal trainer, but I continued to gain weight. I was bloated and very tired, occasionally passing out. I couldn’t get out, not even to go to the doctor. Now I know this was because my body wasn’t getting enough oxygen, but at the time I blamed myself and my weight. My self-esteem plummeted to an all-time low.”
On December 8, 2006, after a year and a half of deteriorating health, she called two of her friends, who were so concerned they’d started dropping by everyday to check on her, to take her to the hospital. “I began to finally accept something was seriously wrong with me. I was retaining so much fluid that my eyes were swollen and my lips were cracked. I felt like a water balloon: if you pricked me with a pin I would burst,” she says.
Lee was admitted to hospital where she was diagnosed with right-sided heart failure. They immediately inserted a catheter and started her on diuretics. Within two weeks she lost 90 pounds of fluid. “A nurse came in one morning, looked at me and said, ‘You have legs!’” she jokes. “Thank God the left side of my heart was OK.”
Heart failure is a life-threatening condition which occurs when the heart isn’t strong enough to supply enough blood to the body. With right-sided heart failure the right ventricle, the lower chamber on the right side of the heart, loses its ability to pump blood efficiently; blood backs up in the body causing fluid retention, or edema, often in the wrists/ hands and ankles/ feet.
After her heart failure Lee was on 24-hour oxygen and medications, and needed a walker and cane to get around; she hasn’t required any of these since May 2007. “I walk regularly with my dog, Mackenzie, and am starting to work out at the gym. I’m learning to love myself and as part of that journey I am so much more in tune with my body. It’s unfortunate my doctor was so consumed about my weight he missed my other symptoms. It really brought home the effect of stress on the body and how misunderstood heart disease in women is.”
Many are surprised to learn the number of deaths due to heart disease and stroke are virtually the same for men and women. In 2004 cardiovascular disease accounted for 32% of all deaths in Canada: 31% in males and 33% in females (Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada).
Lee has also changed careers: she’s become a Universal Energy Healer and teacher, and founded the self-enrichment learning centre “I Am I Can” and the “Canadian Sisterhood of Celebration” women’s network. Both are designed to help people appreciate their inner beauty and nurture self-love. “I’ve gone from a stressful sales career to a fulfilling career where all my work is from the heart: my heart failure made me realize my love of life and all beings.”
Lee speaks from the heart when she says, “When my heart failed I was under a tremendous amount of stress and I put myself last. I was depressed about my weight. And I’d just been taken off hormone replacement therapy. My heart failure taught me how critical your thinking is to determining how your life unfolds. I’m a living example of how negative thoughts, which I call ‘stinkin thinkin’, can work against you, and the amazing and enriched life you can lead when you change your life to one of positive thinking.”
She pauses and smiles. “I never realized how being broken for so much of my lifetime was really such a large part of my heart finally physically breaking. Now I am learning to love myself; being ‘heart-broken’ has made me stronger.”
Lee Pryke isn’t just a survivor; she’s a thriver.