Diabetes had long been knocking on Herrera’s door. The disease claimed the lives of her mother and younger sister, and led her father to a double limb amputation before claiming his life, too.
While Herrera, was acutely aware of diabetes, heart disease — another closely related health threat with just as many familial warning signs — was flying under her radar.
When her 37-year-old sister’s heart stopped as a complication of her diabetes, Herrera asked a coach at her school for some fitness tips. He helped her design a regimen that included lifting weights and running. She also started watching her diet.
“But I’ll be honest,” Herrera said, “if the coach wasn’t watching, I had my bag of potato chips. I’d go to my older sister’s house and not think twice about what I was putting into my body. I was telling myself it was OK because I was working out.”
Turn for the worse
Around the start of the 2017-18 school year, a checkup showed she had prediabetes. Not type 1 like her mother, younger sister, and father, but type 2, the kind often traced to lifestyle choices, such as consuming sodas, pork tamales slathered in salsa, and refried beans. The doctor encouraged Christina to keep exercising and to pay closer attention to her diet.
“But I was so naïve about what that meant,” she said. “I thought that if I kept eating salads, that was good enough.”
In the final weeks of that school year, as Herrera walked the stairs to her second-floor classroom, her heart raced. Breaths became short. She began sweating. When she got to her room, her stomach felt upset.
She was persuaded to visit the school nurse, who checked Herrera’s blood pressure.
“I have to call an ambulance,” the nurse said.
A stress test led to a cardiac catheterization procedure, which led to open-heart surgery for a triple bypass. In the hospital, Herrera found out she was no longer prediabetic. She had type 2 diabetes.
People living with type 2 diabetes are twice as likely to develop and die from cardiovascular disease, such as heart attacks, strokes, and heart failure. For Herrera, open-heart surgery was her final wake-up call.
Herrera doubled down on her research, learning how to scrutinize food nutrition labels and make better choices when ordering meals in her favorite restaurants. Herrera, a Know Diabetes by Heart national ambassador, also started running with the encouragement of high school friends she reconnected with after her surgery.
She began running in October 2018 and completed her first 10K last December. She now has her sights set on a triathlon. While the event date keeps moving due to COVID-19, Herrera keeps her eye on her goal and trains as if her life depends on it. Because it just might.
Some of Herrera’s family members and friends don’t understand her passion for health. Their attitude, she said, is “If I get sick, I get sick.” But her emotional heart is scarred by losing her parents and sister to diabetes and heart disease.
“Getting up every morning is a wonderful thing,” Herrera said. “Diabetes is not hopeless. You can make changes and you can reverse this.”
She’s taking her second chance — her “take 2” — to manage her diabetes, protect her heart, and build a healthy life for her son.
“I pledge that it ends with me,” she said.