Penny Grace, 47, is a busy wife, mother of two and, for almost 20 years, the front desk manager at Salem Dentistry in Bennington. On this early February day, she sits down in the office waiting room to chat. She has a warm smile and spiky red hair. She isn’t the type of person you would expect to have had a heart attack.
Penny’s story begins one day during the summer of 2014. On the 10th anniversary of her father’s death, she traveled to Burlington to watch her son play baseball. While walking to the game, she was caught in a swarm of bees and was stung several times. Like a good mom-fan, she took some antihistamine, and enjoyed the game. The following morning she woke up early and went downstairs to do chores.
“I couldn’t catch my breath. I was hot and dizzy. Something just wasn’t right,” Penny said. “I thought the symptoms were an allergic reaction to the stings.”
Worried, she headed to her primary care office, SVMC Internal Medicine. Dr. David Sischy did an electrocardiograph (EKG), a test that checks for problems with the electrical activity of the heart. He was able to see that Penny had had a heart attack.
“I was shocked,” Penny said. “I had a heart attack, and I didn’t even know.”
Penny had no history of heart disease in her family. She has never smoked. She walked three times a week. She had known that her blood pressure was slightly high and took medication prescribed to bring it down. Neither the bee stings nor the antihistamine, she was told, were at all likely to have caused the heart attack. Though, she learned later, stress may have played a role.
After meeting SVMC Cardiology’s Dr. Scott Rogge in the Emergency Department, Penny was transferred to Albany Medical Center for a stent and a 3-day stay.
“You feel like the rug is pulled out from under you. The very core of your being—your heart—is compromised,” Penny remembers. “I was afraid every day that I was going to have another one. It was scary.”
Once back home, she spent 12 weeks attending SVMC’s Cardiac Rehab’s phase II and phase III sessions, until she was comfortable exercising on her own.
“Those women are hand-picked for their jobs,” she said of the SVMC Cardiac Rehab staff, Robin Frasier, PT; Patricia Ryan, RN; and Kathy Sleeman, PT. “You think you are going to rehab to get physically fit, but they are also helping you get mentally fit to get back to your life. It’s like a support group.”
Through Cardiac Rehab and with support from her family, friends, and Drs. Kim Fodor and Scott Rogge, Penny was able to reclaim her confidence and redefine her habits.
“I exercise religiously. I like to walk on a treadmill. I use an elliptical trainer and swim in the summer. I use free weights a few times a week.”
In June 2016, she and a team from Salem Dentistry climbed the Bennington Battle Monument’s 417 steps during the American Lung Association’s Fight for Air Climb.
She also changed her diet. She tries to eat more colorful foods and pays attention to labels. It’s not always easy; there are so many confusing choices, she says. But she has made progress. Throughout the changes, she’s lost 20 pounds and continues her efforts to lose more.
“Looking back, I used to believe the day of the heart attack was the worst day of my life, but now I choose to look at it as a wake-up call, a second chance,” Penny said. “Really, I think my dad was looking out for me that day. If I had not gotten stung, I may have brushed off the symptoms and could have been in a much worse situation.”
She warns moms to guard against always putting their own needs last.
“We are the last ones to bed and the first ones up in the morning. It’s exhausting,” Penny said. “We need to make time for ourselves to exercise, choose foods wisely, and go to the doctor.”
At the end of the interview, Penny prepares to put her dental-office-manager hat back on.
“And take care of your teeth, too,” she adds. “Brushing and flossing are an important part of overall health.”