Most people don’t think about their heart health — especially young, active 20-year-olds.
Our hearts pump blood all throughout our bodies, but it’s a natural rhythm. Just like breathing, we sort of forget it happens.
But for Pulse Athletic Apparel Brand Ambassador Nico Valdés, it’s something he thinks about every day.
On January 7, 2016, Nico was a senior in college fresh into his 20s. He exercised, didn’t grow up with any heart-related issues, and had no reason to worry about his cardiovascular health.
But what started as a little discomfort became 18 hours of chest pain, which then became a 30-hour stay in a Chicago emergency room.
“During the first few hours I started experiencing chest pain, I thought nothing of it and that the pain would eventually subside,” Nico said. “I kept saying, ‘You’re fine,’ but my body was clearly telling me something was wrong.”
Even after hours of tests (echocardiogram, EKG, and blood work), doctors initially didn’t know what was causing Nico’s severe chest pain or accelerated heart rate.
Eventually, they gave him a triple diagnosis: pericarditis (inflammation of the pericardium), myocarditis (inflammation or an infection of an internal heart wall), and ventricular tachycardia (irregular heart rhythm).
The chest pain caused by pericarditis and myocarditis can be ranked a few levels below a heart attack. Recovery begins with a three-month healing process and after, people are normally able to resume their everyday lives.
Nico followed doctors’ orders as they kept close watch on his heart. But on May 26, 2016, he relapsed and began yet another recovery process.
His diagnosis pushed his graduation date back a year, but Nico spent that year really focusing on his health and what his heart needed.
“I actually fell behind in school by four classes, so I thought why not use my fifth year of college to complete those classes and properly rest and recuperate,” Nico said. “With a lighter schedule, I was fortunate enough to dedicate my time and energy to getting better.”
Nico, who now resides in Miami and works in the hospitality industry, is living a life where his health is as important to him as his friends and family. And instead of dwelling on what he went through, Nico is turning a negative experience into a positive one.
Pulse Athletic Apparel’s collaboration with the American Heart Association for February’s American Heart Month was inspired in part by Nico’s own involvement with the organization. He has volunteered with the AHA every year for the last four years.
“The American Heart Association is absolutely a very important organization in my life,” Nico said. “I really love what it stands for — ‘Life is Why’.”
Read on for more on Nico’s heart health journey, his biggest takeaways, and his advice for anyone dealing with heart-related issues.
Do the doctors know what could have caused your pericarditis and myocarditis? Or what caused your relapse a few months later?
They didn’t have a concrete answer. They simply stated that I must have experienced a viral infection, which in lay terms, means they could not find a rhyme or reason as to why my issues occurred.
I suspect what caused the relapse of the pericarditis and myocarditis a few months later was simply putting my body through too much. I had gone for a run for the first time and was stressed with exams around the three-month mark, which I imagine contributed to the physical stress that reignited these problems.
What part of your heart needs to heal?
Pericarditis and myocarditis are the inflammation of both the pericardium and myocardium, respectively. Both being layers surrounding the heart, one could visualize these issues like an infection that impacts the heart. Typically, it takes three months of rest and possibly medication to be cured or cleared of experiencing the symptoms of pericarditis and myocarditis.
After the healing process, are you fully healed? What are the chances of a relapse happening?
Doctors typically take the first three months very seriously and critically analyze one’s symptoms and progress with rest, medication and in some cases, wearing a heart monitor. Having worn a heart monitor for 6 weeks, I was one of those typical cases they looked at closely.
After the three months, typically a patient would be cleared to resume some light physical activity. However, it would probably be closer to one year in which a patient would have to continue seeing a cardiologist to assess the safest ways of moving forward. The chances of a recurrence or a relapse of these issues are generally between 15%-30%. So in my case, as a 20-year-old experiencing both pericarditis and myocarditis twice, that would put me in a very small population as these heart issues are typically found in those in their 30s-60s.
You used your last year of college to recuperate. What kind of regimen or diet did you have to follow to nurse yourself back to health? What kind of regimen do you follow now?
I will admit diet has been one of my greatest struggles throughout this journey even to this day. But I made it a point to try and drink more water, research some heart-healthy recipes to make, and incorporate some light exercise into my weekly routine.
Walking has always been a constant in my life, but something I discovered during that year that helped tremendously was yoga. I had never tried yoga before but would go to a weekly class with some friends because I missed working out. Yoga made a great difference that year for my mental outlook as well as providing my body with a calming activity. Now I am an avid walker and have tried including some light jogging once or twice a week.
My perspective is that as long as you make the effort to get outside and be active, whether it’s for 10 minutes or two hours, you will be doing your body the biggest favor.
What was your first year of volunteering with the American Heart Association like?
My first time volunteering was during the summer of 2017 when I helped with registration at a cycling charity event in Chicago’s Loop neighborhood.
I knew absolutely no one, but wanted to try something out of my comfort zone and had the best time. I got to meet several fantastic members of the Chicago chapter and learned about why they were involved and it really inspired me. Later that year in the fall was when I decided to participate in my first Heart Walk where several thousand people walked 3.5 miles through Downtown Chicago.
What made you want to continue to be involved?
I knew I wanted to make the most out of my own bad situation and turn it into something constructive. So whether it is promoting National Wear Day to my own friends over social media or volunteering at a charity event, I knew this was my best way to turn something that was bad into something good.
How are you involved this year?
This year, I am only involved in the Broward County virtual heart walk on March 14th. However, I will be walking in Miami-Dade County and challenging myself to walk 10 miles in honor of the event. I’m hopeful that, when things become safer, I can get more involved with the Broward or Miami chapters of the AHA.
Heart health isn't a topic that younger generations talk about a lot. Why should people pay more attention to their cardiovascular health?
Younger people tend to think they are invincible, as I certainly thought at 20.
What I’ve learned is that many heart-related issues are actually avoidable with a good foundation of a healthy diet and a regular exercise routine. I think if people who are in their 20s were to create healthy lifestyle changes and maintain them, it could benefit them long-term. Since cardiovascular issues tend to arise in those who are older, healthy steps at a younger age could be a strong case for precaution.
How has your heart health journey affected you and your overall mindset?
The entire experience over the last five years has changed my life forever. My priorities have shifted to where I value my health as one of my greatest responsibilities along with my family and grad school.
For the first two years of this journey, I was frustrated and confused as to why this happened in the first place. So even though I still have no answer as to why this occurred in the first place, the last five years taught me it’s not how you fall but how you get back up. I learned to use my weakness as a strength and a means of power — the power to bring awareness and create some positivity out of a bad situation.
Any tips or advice for people who are starting or want to start their own heart health journeys?
My advice to anyone experiencing heart issues is to 1. Do things that make you happy and 2. Create a good support system if possible. What got me through the most stressful times was doing things that brought joy to my day, like going for a daily walk or making time to watch my favorite TV shows.
Additionally, I was fortunate enough to have incredible friends and family who were there for me throughout the whole journey. For anyone wanting to start their own heart-healthy journey, I’d say start small. Small changes to your daily routine like implementing a daily walk or cooking heart-healthy meals can slowly improve your heart health.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.