Ceirra Zeager, 23, had just attended her first winter formal as a high school freshman when she woke up on the floor of her home after passing out.
According to Zeager, who shared her story with the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women “Real Women” campaign, when she awoke she became aware of what felt like an “elephant” on her chest.
However, Zeager told Insider that the heaviness wasn’t her first symptom that something was wrong, as her heart had been racing the night of the dance, when she’d danced with a boy for the first time. But, according to the 23-year-old, she’d assumed the feeling had been “butterflies,” and not a sign that something was wrong with her heart.
After she collapsed, Zeager’s father rushed her to the nearest hospital, where the then-14-year-old waited to see a doctor as her arms ached with an “intense burning pain”.
According to Zeager, the emergency room doctor suspected the cause of her symptoms was anxiety, but referred her to a children’s hospital just in case.
Speaking to Insider about the initial diagnosis, Zeager said she’d felt “embarrassed” about the possibility her symptoms were caused by anxiety.
“ââIt really broke me to hear that because I felt embarrassed that my whole family was there, and I was ruining my brother’s birthday get-together,” she recalled.
After waiting hours again, Zeager was eventually told that she needed emergency surgery.
It wasn’t until after the surgery that the teenager was told she’d suffered a heart attack as a result of a blood clot that had travelled through a hole in her heart and into a coronary artery.
Zeager’s blood clot was caused by elevated lipoprotein A, which means that her red blood cells are “extra sticky,” Insider notes, while she was also born with patent foramen ovale (PFO), or a hole in her heart, which allowed the blood clot to get lodged in her coronary artery.
According to the University of Pennsylvania’s medical centre Penn Medicine, there are typically no complications from a PFO. However, in Zeager’s case, the hole combined with her high lipoprotein A levels.
The surgery to repair the hole was successful, and Zeager was able to return home with a prescription for blood thinners after several weeks in the hospital.
However, she said the heart attack changed her life forever, as it left her heart “permanently damaged”.
“My life from that moment was completely flipped upside down,” she told the AHA.
In 2021, Zeager began to experience new symptoms, including extreme fatigue and shortness of breath. An echocardiogram revealed that one of her heart valves was “leaky” after it had been damaged by her heart attack nearly a decade earlier.
Although her first cardiologist suggested they reevaluate the situation in six months, Zeager sought a second opinion from another cardiologist, who informed her the valve needed to be repaired as soon as possible.
In the lead-up to her second open-heart surgery, Zeager got married during a weeklong trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, which she described to the AHA as a “last hurrah”.
In February 2021, shortly after her wedding, Zeager underwent open-heart surgery to repair the valve.
However, the slow recovery proved difficult for the now-23 year old, who struggled with her self-esteem, and who found mental healing the hardest part.
“You’re swollen, you’re bruised, you don’t feel like yourself, you’re on all sorts of painkillers, and you’re just barely making it through each day,” she told Insider, adding: “In that moment, I was not positive. I was not happy.”
“I was beating myself up constantly, and I’ve never experienced anything like that,” she told the AHA. “It hit me all at once.”
Now, Zeager has made it her mission to stay healthy through regular exercise and a low-sodium diet, and to share her story with others in the hopes that she can spread awareness about heart disease.
“I had this crazy, tragic thing happen to me, and I want to use it for good and raise as much awareness as I can,” she told the American Heart Association. “I have purpose now.”