Starting a New Chapter in Life with Intention

In 2019, Candice Lee experienced shortness of breath and her chest hurt. Wasting no time, she went to the emergency room, “they ran an EKG, which came back abnormal.” she explained. The ER doctors then sent her to the Cath Lab for additional tests, “I literally had people grabbing every arm and leg…just prepping me. I didn’t know what was going on.” Realizing this may be something more serious, she called her mom, who drove to the hospital to be with her daughter. Told that Candice had suffered a heart attack additional tests showed nothing. “There was no blockage anywhere in my heart,” Candice explained. She was instead diagnosed with Takotsubo Syndrome, which is the literal definition of broken heart syndrome.

Candice and Mercy Housing President and CEO, Ismael Guerrero

A year later, Candice was hired as the Assistant Property Manager at Mercy Housing’s St. Mary’s Villa in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her impact was felt immediately among the community’s senior residents. “Candice is awesome. She’s a wonderful person. She’s outgoing and energetic and has the most pleasant personality of anyone I’ve ever known. You never hear anything negative about her and if you do it’s a lie. She’s always ready to talk to you” shared Linda Hemphill, who has called St. Mary’s Villa home for the past three years.

From Football to the ER

Candice had planned a fun birthday celebration for her boyfriend, a huge New England Patriots fan, last October, which included a five-hour drive to Cleveland to watch his beloved New England Patriots play the Browns. “We had a big day at the NFL stadium,” she shared. “It was my first NFL game. I’m a good girlfriend, but I’m not a great girlfriend because I bought the seats that were way up there,” she laughed. They walked a lot – around the stadium, up and down the stairs, and back to their car. “I do have major asthma,” Candice explained, “but I was able to walk up and down the steps with no problem. We had a good time.”

Two days later, on October 18, Candice was back at work and suffered a major heart attack. “I was catching up with my maintenance manager and felt a little off. I wasn’t breathing like I wanted to, but it felt like asthma.” She explained. She cut their conversation short and took out her rescue inhaler, but it didn’t help. “After a few minutes, I got a little dizzy and I was more nauseous. I didn’t feel good – my stomach was hurting so I went to the ladies’ room.” Once in the bathroom, Candice felt weaker, “I felt like I couldn’t stand up. Walking seemed like it was too much of a burden,” she added.

She texted her Resident Services Coordinator, saying “I think I’m having a heart attack. Call 9-1-1.”

Trusting Her Instincts

When the paramedics arrived at St. Mary’s Villa, they told her that her vitals looked good, suggesting that it looked more like post-COVID. Candice had tested positive for COVID earlier in the month. At the hospital she was told again that her symptoms looked like post-COVID, reassuring her that everything was “fine.”

“My instinct told me to sit back and let them do whatever it is that they’re going to do. I didn’t feel like that was an accurate assessment of what was going on with me, but I didn’t want to push back, and they say, ‘Oh, that’s what it is and just write me off and send me home,’ So, I kind of just wanted to keep my mouth shut, let them do what they were gonna do,” she explained.

Her team of doctors and nurses immediately went to work running an array of tests – an EKG, CAT scan, and a CT scan. Following the tests, Candice lost her strength again and collapsed. The doctors came running in, and while she did not lose consciousness, they ordered additional tests and took her back to her room.

Further testing revealed that Candice had three blocked arteries, but even more shocking was that her main artery was 97% blocked. Because Candice’s doctor had prescribed a steroid for her to take while she had COVID and the blood thinner she was given in the ER was still in her body, open heart surgery was scheduled for six days later.

Candice gives the thumbs up following heart surgery

The doctors were able to stent two of the arteries, but not the main one. To fix that, Candice underwent double bypass surgery.

Signs of a Heart Attack

Signs of a heart attack aren’t always obvious. “The scariest part of heart disease and bad stuff with your heart is that you may not feel it. I never felt it. I didn’t know it was coming,” Candice reflected.

Candice didn’t have the “typical” signs, such as discomfort in the chest, pain in the arm, and shortness of breath, so she was shocked to learn she had suffered a major heart attack. “I had no idea my heart was about to explode. And apparently, it had been coming on for some time – How do you go from 0% blockage just three years earlier to being almost completely blocked?”

It was the perfect storm she did not see coming.

A Grateful and Healthy Heart

Back at work since mid-January, Candice is feeling better, but not without having to make some major changes to her lifestyle. Her doctors are proponents of “everything in moderation,” and she is learning more and more about her limitations each day.

“Sodium is bad, and it manifests almost immediately in me – I start to swell up.” Candice notes. For her, any swelling is a constant reminder that if she wants to continue the way to live the way she now does, she’s going to have to make some “real changes.”

Early in her recovery, Candice’s mom coordinated with several of her girlfriends to make sure that there was someone at the house with her every day. She refers to them as her “village,” explaining, “Supportive is supportive, but they rallied around me.”

Moments to celebrate

“Even my Mercy Housing family,” she added. “My property manager let the team know that I was down, and they immediately stepped up to help,” something that Candice was never good at asking for, whenever she felt overwhelmed.

“I check on her because I worry about her,” St. Mary’s Villa resident Vearlon said.

“One of the things that I’ve learned is to ask for help. I don’t need to do it all; it’s okay to ask for help.”

Candice shares that her word for 2023 is “intentional,” explaining, “Be intentional about everything you say. Everything you do. I want to be clear. I want to be intentional – I’m going to express myself and let you know where I stand and how it makes me feel.”

Pansy adds, “She’s a friend and has been through a lot this year and last. I admire her for standing up through everything!”