Living with heart disease

  • A heart monitor in a hospital room showing heart rate and elevated blood pressure. Contributed photo/American Heart Association

For the Recorder
Published: 2/22/2020 8:00:10 AM

In 2015, Brian Winslow, of Northfield, was competing in an obstacle course when his wife, Stephanie Winslow, Greenfield-based Baystate Franklin Medical Center’s nurse educator, cued him in that something wasn’t right. He was short of breath and not feeling well.

Later, after his annual echocardiogram checkup, “doctors realized my heart was starting to change and I needed to get my valve replaced,” said Winslow, 37, one recent day. “I immediately thought about my wife and my then 2-year old twin boys. I was scared not to have the surgery because I was worried about what might happen, but at the same time scared to have the surgery of what will happen during the procedure.”

It wasn’t the first time Winslow experience heart problems. He was born with an aortic valve defect — a condition where the valve between the main pumping chamber of the heart and the body’s main artery doesn’t work properly. He underwent a valvuloplasty at the age of 4 years old to widen his heart valve — giving Winslow a new lease on life. In high school and college, Winslow was active in sports, and started running in races as an adult. But the corrective surgery he underwent as a child didn’t last forever.

In the 24 years he’s been practicing medicine, Dr. Steven DiPillo, of Baystate’s Northampton Cardiology in Florence, said he’s seeing more adult patients these days who were born with congenital heart defects that have been corrected surgically so they can live longer and more fulfilling lives.

“We decreased the amount of people who are having heart attacks. People are living longer with heart disease and they’re living a better quality of life,” DiPillo said, noting that he’s noticed a tremendous amount of research and medical progress since he began practicing. “My job is to help tailor a plan for them that is personalized. Do they need to work on a diet, exercise more, do they need a better target weight, do we need to employ medications, or can lifestyle or supplements help?”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. Every year, about 805,000 Americans have a heart attack. Of these, 605,000 are a first-time heart attack, 200,000 happen to people who have already had a heart attack and about one in five heart attacks are “silent” — the damage is done but the person is not aware of it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Risk factors for heart disease include a poor diet and an inactive lifestyle, which tend to raise cholesterol, blood pressure and body weight, leading to heart disease.

There are many types of heart disease such as arrhythmia (an irregular heartbeat) and myocardial infarction (damage of the heart muscle) though the most common one people think about is coronary heart disease, according to Dipillo. These are the arteries on the surface of the heart that supply blood to the heart muscle. When those arteries block up, they can cause a symptom known as angina, which is chest pressure or tightness with activity that’s relieved by rest.

“That is one sign of coronary heart disease. Another sign is a heart attack that happens suddenly with no warning and patients develop the same type of pressure or tightness in their chest. It’s unrelenting and often associated with other symptoms like shortness of breath, sweating, nausea and light-headedness. It can also be radiating to the arm, jaw and back,” DiPillo said.

DiPillo also mentions smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and if it runs in a first-degree relative. If the relative had heart problems, particularly at a young age — men in their 50s, women in their 60s or before — that, as well, contribute to the risk of developing coronary disease. Notably, the American Heart Association recognizes Heart Month every February.

For Winslow, the awareness month has held a different kind of meaning for the last six years. In December of 2015, Winslow had his aortic valve replaced and went through cardiac rehab at Baystate Franklin Medical Center. The biggest challenge for him wasn’t the physical recovery but the mental recovery. In recovery, he had developed anxiety and was worried about everything that could go wrong. Amid his mental health challenges, Winslow strives to keep a positive mindset and use the people around him for help.

These years after his aortic valve replacement, Winslow says he is more reflective of what he does and encourages those going through a similar situation to not be afraid to ask for help.

“This has been an eye-opening experience,” Winslow responds. “Now I want to do everything, but for a different reason. It has made me extremely appreciative of what I have. My job, my family, everyone who is in my inner circle means a lot to me and I don’t take that for granted.”

For more information and in search for a cardiologist go to or call at 413-773-2901.

Miasha Lee is a resident of Hatfield. She loves writing about music, health, culture and everyday people in the community. Contact her at

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