“I want to use my story to help others and to raise awareness that heart disease is not just for older people.”
This is the message 17-year-old Amber Freer hopes to spread as a member of the 2013 Central Arkansas Survivor Gallery, a group of 10 women of all ages who have been affected by heart disease or stroke.
Freer said she is “so excited” to be a part of such a “wonderful” group of women: “It’s such an honor and a good opportunity to share my story.”
Women selected for the Survivor Gallery “represent a variety of heart issues, ages and cultures,” said Alexis Sims, communications director of the American Heart Association in Little Rock. This year’s group features survivors age 5 to 91, who are “living productive lives after having a heart attack, stroke or other heart condition,” she said.
Members of the Survivor Gallery were unveiled at a reception at the State Capitol on Jan. 30. Survivors featured in the gallery also will attend the 2013 Central Arkansas Go Red for Women Luncheon on May 15 at the Peabody Hotel in Little Rock, Sims said.
“It was incredible how something so tiny could be ruining my whole life,”
A Survivor’s Story
Freer’s story of survival began when she was 14, and noticed her energy level declining and other changes in her health.
She has always been an active teenager, who exercised regularly, and loved cheerleading, hiking and jogging. Suddenly, doing simple exercises or even walking up stairs made her short of breath. While just sitting, her heart rate would become erratic, and she started experiencing ocular migraines, she said.
“I was tired all the time and found it hard to keep up with workouts,” Freer said. “I thought I was just being lazy so I started working out more.”
But, as her symptoms continued, she knew something must be wrong.
“The symptoms were real and were affecting me in a real way,” she said, expressing her frustrations at the time. She said she went to “every doctor under the sun,” but no one could find anything wrong with her.
Finally after visiting Dr. David Mego, a cardiologist at Arkansas Heart Hospital, and undergoing a “bubble study,” a type of sonogram of the heart, Freer got some answers. The test revealed a tiny hole in her heart, which she’d had since birth.
“It was incredible how something so tiny could be ruining my whole life,” Freer said. “The solution to my problem was seemingly so simple, yet it affected me so immediately and greatly.”
After undergoing a procedure to repair the hole when she was 15, she said she immediately “felt 100% better.” Her energy came back, and she went right back to enjoying her favorite activities. Today, she remains as healthy as ever.
From the Heart
Now, Freer, a junior at Little Rock Central High School, is dedicated to raising awareness about heart disease and that heart health is important at any age. Before her own heart issues, Freer said she thought being affected at such a young age “seemed unrealistic.”
Last year, Freer was selected as a 2012 American Heart Association Sweetheart. This program is for 10th-grade girls and educates them on the importance of health care, heart healthy activities and volunteerism. The program was created in 1998 to support the annual Heart Ball and American Heart Association. The 2012 class included more than 50 girls, Sims said.
As a Sweetheart, Freer said she learned CPR and a lot about heart health. She also did volunteer work at the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit at Baptist Health Medical Center, where she says she enjoyed talking to patients and making them “feel comfortable.”
She also raised more than $4,000 for research on cardiovascular disease. As a Sweetheart, she said she also enjoyed meeting the other girls, making lifelong friends and getting dressed up for the Heart Ball.
Last summer, Freer worked at Foot and Ankle Associates of Central Arkansas, where she said she got the opportunity to watch an ankle reconstruction procedure, which “fascinated” her. This experience, along with what she learned as a Sweetheart and volunteering have made her realize that she would like to have a career in health care one day, she said.
Freer said her mom, Paula Freer, a nurse, who works in the Central Scheduling Department at the Arkansas Heart Hospital Clinic, has always wanted her to go into the medical field.
Because Freer’s grandmother had a heart attack and the nature of her mom’s job, Freer said her family has always been involved with the Heart Association. Each year, she said they participate in the annual Heart Walk, usually held in April.
Freer, who describes herself as independent and self-motivated, said before becoming a Sweetheart, she volunteered in her community only if it was required by school or other activity. Now, she said, giving back to the community has taught her a lot about herself and is “something that’s going to stay with me forever.”
“I’ve learned it’s important to share your struggle,” she said. “It’s good to reach out to others, if you have something that can help someone else. It makes you a better person.
“There’s so much you can do through raising awareness. It taught me to get out of my comfort zone. It’s good when you can give a little of your time.”