Nicole Hardy might not be here today if not for listening to her body and her intuition.
After two open-heart surgeries over a period of three weeks, Hardy has a mechanical aortic valve and aortic root, the section of the aorta closest to and attached to the heart. At 47, she’s a slim single mom, a manager at Pottery Barn and a national spokeswoman for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign. She certainly doesn’t look like what we think of as someone at risk for heart issues—which is why she was overlooked for so long.
“That’s part of why I feel so strongly about being out there as a face of a heart disease survivor,” Hardy says. “I wasn’t taken seriously. The symptoms are subtle. As busy women, those subtle things are hard for us to take note of and to voice. And when we do, we need doctors to listen.”
Hardy’s father died of a heart attack when he was 28 and she was just a year old. His uncle had also died young of heart disease. “I grew up in a world where people said ‘thank God she’s a girl’ because women don’t have the issues with heart disease that men do,’” Hardy says. “I was having symptoms of heart disease all the way from childhood, and I didn’t know it.”
Running in physical fitness testing in school, for example, was more difficult for her than it was for other seemingly fit young women. “People would look at me, surprised, and say, ‘You look healthy.’”
During her first pregnancy, a slight narrowing of the aortic root was detected, but the doctor thought Hardy would make it through the pregnancy safely. She did. She had Brielle, who is now a 19-year-old student at the University of Maine at Orono, and then Amelia, now a 15-year-old at Scarborough High School. In the early years of motherhood, Hardy made fitness a big part of her life.
“When I would exercise and my heart rate would go up, my jaw would ache,” Hardy says, adding that anytime she mentioned it she’d be told she must have been clenching her teeth. She didn’t think she was.
Four years ago, Hardy went through a divorce and the transition from working part time to working full time as a manager at Victoria’s Secret. “These major life changes certainly added to my stress,” she says. She would get winded, she had a constant ache across her upper back, and she felt what she assumed was heartburn.
“I was hard on myself, and thought, ‘Nicole, you have let yourself get out of shape and put taking care of yourself on the back burner.’” So, when Victoria’s Secret encouraged employees to apply for a spot on a corporate team in a cycling event to raise money to fight cancer, Hardy signed on.
“I knew there was a reason I needed to do this bike ride,” she says.
She started training with her daughters, who were surprised at how out of breath she got on small hills and by short distances. One Sunday she went for a ride alone, and before long she was not only out of breath but also nauseous.
“I was determined not to vomit on the side of the road. I thought that would have been so embarrassing. So I kept pedaling,” she says. “Then that night I felt not only what I thought was heartburn but a bubbling up like my heart was in my throat.”
She called a doctor in the morning and went for an echocardiogram.
“I’ve always had a heart murmur, but I was told my aortic valve was leaking, and I’d need to have the valve replaced and would meet with a cardiac surgeon in about three weeks.”
She went home and rested, then, having been medically cleared to do so, she went back to work on Saturday. Sitting in her office, feeling lightheaded and dizzy, she asked a coworker to call an ambulance. At the hospital, Hardy was told that knowing she would need a valve replacement was likely just making her anxious. And she was sent home.
Listening to her instincts, Hardy called Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, told them her story and asked to see a surgeon as soon as possible. Two days later, she met Dr. Mike Davidson.
“He had the same test results but said, ‘Tell me how you feel,’” Hardy says. “And he scheduled me as his first patient of the day on Monday morning for open-heart surgery…He, in his gut and his experience, knew I was probably moments away from having a heart attack.”
In fact, two of Nicole’s arteries were 80 and 95 percent blocked, and a double bypass was needed. Her condition was congenital, and Brigham and Women’s had never encountered it in a person who had made it to adulthood without surgery.
Recovery from that surgery might have been the end of the story—except that the aortic valve started leaking again within weeks. Hardy was rushed back to Boston for a nine-hour surgery in which her aortic valve and root were replaced with mechanical versions.
Back home in Scarborough, the staff at Turning Point Cardiac Rehabilitation led her through an experience that was both physical and emotional. “Learning to trust your body again is a challenge,” Hardy says, explaining that she needed to listen to her body, not hop on the treadmill with music and a magazine. “I reluctantly let go of all the distraction.”
Once she was able, Hardy brought both her daughters to a pediatric cardiologist. “Thank God they both have perfectly working little hearts,” she says. “I feel like I broke the cycle, and going forward, everyone will be checked regularly.”
In January 2015, Nicole’s heart surgeon in Boston was shot and killed by the son of a former patient. “I’m a single mom, and my daughters have their mother because of his healing hands,” Hardy says. “He gave me my voice, and I want to use it.”
It was partly out of a desire to honor Mike Davidson that Hardy responded to an open casting call for the Maine Go Red for Women campaign. She was chosen not only a state spokesperson, but as national one as well. Her passion is educating women about the various symptoms of heart disease and listening to their bodies.
“I never had tightness in my chest or an aching arm, the commonly thought of symptoms of heart disease,” Hardy says. Instead she experienced jaw ache, back ache, lightheadedness, fatigue and shortness of breath, and some of those symptoms had been there for years.
Hardy has been in a commercial, has been interviewed by magazines and has given a number of public talks, all to increase awareness of heart disease—the No. 1 killer of women.
“I thought I had a full plate,” she says. “But when something is actually fulfilling, there’s room on your plate for it. There’s a difference between a full plate and a fulfilled plate.”
Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and editor from Scarborough.