Family promotes heart health

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It can happen at any age.

It can happen even if you eat healthy and exercise regularly.

Heart disease can happen to anyone, and it’s that word the Benham family wants to get across as they participate in this year’s America’s Greatest Heart Run and Walk.

The event and Heart Weekend at Utica College will be held Friday and Saturday, March 2 and 3.

Participants may register online at www.uticaheartrunwalk.org, or visit one of several options for pre-registration sites.

Roy Benham, 54, continues to battle heart disease. His daughter Grace, age 14, was born with a heart defect and has a condition that needs continuous monitoring.

Our family shows “that heart disease can come at any age, it’s not just the elderly,” said wife and mom Nancy, assistant superintendent at the State School for the Deaf, as she signed the conversation for her daughter. “But it doesn’t have to slow you down.”

And slow down is definitely something the Benham knows little about. Two years ago when adopting their son Luke in China, the family walked to the top of the Great Wall, “and I kept right up,” Roy said. Grace plays soccer and basketball, and recently traveled to Iowa with her classmates from the Deaf School to participate in an academic bowl.

Grace was adopted by the Benhams in Korea at the age of 2. Nancy said they were told at the time that at age six months, Grace had open heart surgery for a ventricular septal defect. Periodically, the Behams would need to follow up with a cardiologist and she eventually had to have other surgeries. It was during one visit to the cardiologist that the Benhams were informed that Grace suffered from a condition that was potentially life threatening.

“They did an echocardiogram and asked us if we knew that she was borderline for Long QT syndrome,” Nancy recalled. “That means there’s a long gap in between when the heart recovers. We were told people could be in good shape and be running a marathon and all of a sudden collapse” from Long QT.

But if people are unaware they suffer from Long QT and believe it’s a mere fainting spell, medical attention may not be sought in time if first attempts are made to revive the victim. Nancy explained that patients with Long QT can die if they don’t receive a shock from a defibrillator or AED right away.

“The School for the Deaf is AED accessible and when Grace attends basketball, or when she recently went to the academic bowl, they have a portable AED that’s brought from school,” Nancy explained. “We learned that kids who are born deaf have a higher incident of Long QT syndrome than other kids. This opportunity, “serving as Red Cap Ambassadors, “is a way for us to educate parents of deaf children so they’re more aware.”

Despite her condition, Roy said his daughter is quite active and continues to enjoy school. She even attends a class at Rome Free Academy.

Grace is “an extremely intelligent child. She’s on the high honor roll with a 3.8 or 3.9 average,” the father said proudly. “She studies and is committed to doing her homework and then her chores. Even when she was a small child, when she got home from school, she would immediately sit down and get her homework done.”

Grace said one of her favorite subjects is math, while she also enjoys science, social studies and reading. She was among classmates who won a sportsmanship award at an academic bowl in Iowa, where the Deaf School finished among the top 16 schools.

And as Grace continues to thrive, so does Roy, despite some obstacles he has had to overcome along his journey through heart disease. Back in 2007, Roy recalled thinking he was suffering from another medical issue when he was sent to a cardiologist for a stress test and was told by his physician that something showed up during the test.

Roy said he went ahead and made an appointment to follow up with a cardiologist, but he didn’t quite make it.

“I had chest pains but went to the ER on a Sunday night,” Roy remembered. “I had a cauterization by early Monday morning and found out an area of my heart was 100 percent blocked.”

At that time, Roy had a stent placed in one of his blood vessels. But six months later, Roy suffered another blockage that doctors said was so severe, surgery could have caused him to experience a heart attack. He was suppose to receive three stents, but instead got two.

Eventually Roy recovered and was living an active normal life, he said. Then in 2011 that changed when he suffered a major heart attack after surgery that doctors said could have potentially been referred to as the “widow maker” if he experienced the attack at home rather than the hospital. Then fast-forward to last year, and Roy said he felt winded and had to stop several times during a routine shopping trip to Walmart.

It turned out that Roy’s pacemaker had slipped out of its “pocket” so he had to get a new model. While still on the operating table, the surgeon discovered and informed him that he would need triple bypass surgery.

“That news rocked me like I had never been rocked before,” said Roy, wiping away tears from his eyes. “They transferred me from Crouse Hospital to St. Joseph’s while Nancy was home with the children. The surgeons did a conference call” to update her on what was going on.

After the surgery and being sent home, Roy said he then had to return to the hospital because he developed blood clots in both lungs.

“I was back in the hospital again for an extended stay,” he said. “It was a six-month process, but now I’m doing much better.”

Roy said, “Since moving here to New York about two years ago, I’ve been put in touch with some fabulous doctors and hospitals, and I’m very thankful for that.”

Today Roy makes sure he does what he can to eat healthy and remain active for his wife and two children. Coming from the South and living for some time in Louisiana, as well as visiting several parts of the country, he has become aware how some areas make heart health a priority while others seem to be lagging behind.

“Living in Louisiana, everything was fried, so that wasn’t very good,” he quipped. “But I have two children to be here for and my wife. I’m trying to keep up with both sets of our parents who were married 50-plus years. So I need to eat properly and maintain a healthy weight.”

But Roy said people still need to be aware of their heart health because heart disease isn’t entirely caused by bad eating habits.

“I wasn’t exactly blessed with the best genes,” he laughed. “A lot of it is genetic too, so you need to be aware.”

That is why as Red Cap Ambassadors, the Benhams are advocating for heart health awareness, in addition to improved lifestyles.

“You can have heart issues, but still live a productive life,” Nancy said.

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