By Kimberly Ketter, as told to Hallie Levine
My identical twin, Shaun Rivers, and I have been through just about everything together: school, learning to drive, relationships, and children. When I was diagnosed with heart failure in 2009, I urged Shaun to also get tested. I was convinced the problem might be genetic. And my instincts were right: a week later Shaun was diagnosed with heart failure. We were only 40 years old at the time, with no risk factors like being overweight, high blood pressure, or type 2 diabetes. We were devastated, but we vowed we’d get through it together. Here’s how we stay healthy.
Slash Salt, Add Spice
Shaun and I are both nurses and always on the go during the day, so we tend to grab quick, portable snacks. But our go-tos were also laden with salt. I joke that I was Queen of the Slim Jims before I was diagnosed. But we quickly realized that when we ate too much salt, our hands swelled and we couldn’t get our shoes on or our rings off.
We try to replace salt with spices like cayenne pepper or crushed red pepper. Another great replacement is fresh salsa. We use it in our cooking, and it’s a good way to sneak in some more veggies.
Finding Joy in Exercise
It’s really important to stay active when you have heart failure, to make your heart stronger.
Before we were both diagnosed, we really enjoyed gym workouts. But some of the medications we’re on cause fatigue, which makes it much tougher to stay active. What we’ve found motivates both of us is dancing to You Tube music videos.
We pick five to six songs and dance nonstop for 30 minutes. It’s so much fun it doesn’t feel like exercise. We also both use a pedometer app to track our steps -- we aim to get about 10,000 a day. Often, we’ll meet up in the park on weekends or after work to catch up and get our steps in.
A New Nighttime Routine
When we first started taking diuretics (water pills) after our heart failure diagnosis, we both experienced trouble sleeping. These medicines cause you to urinate a lot, and sometimes we’d be up all night running to the bathroom. We also felt short of breath whenever we lay down.
But as nurses, we both know how important sleep is for heart health. We came up with a nighttime routine that really helps us nod off: a warm shower, followed by moisturizers that have the soothing aroma of lavender. We also found candles infused with CBD. They not only have a great fragrance, but you can rub their oil on sore muscles at the end of the day. It really makes a difference in our sleep. A cup of chamomile tea before bed helps, too.
It Takes Two
I have to be honest, when Shaun was also diagnosed with heart failure, I felt almost a sense of relief. We’ve always gone through everything together, and the knowledge that I’d have the person closest to me in the whole world on this same path with me was comforting.
We live around the corner from each other and see each other pretty much every single day. We remind each other to take our daily medications, which we’ve dubbed our “keep-Kim-and-Shaun-alive pills.” We also make sure we’re there for one another when one of us has a crummy day. The good news is we both usually don’t have a bad day at the same time, so one of us can cheer the other up. We’ve called each other at 2 a.m. for prayers and support when one of us hasn’t been in a good space.
We remind each other that we’ve beaten the odds. When we were diagnosed, I was shocked to learn that both of us had severe heart failure: My heart was working at only about 20% of its capacity, and Shaun’s was at 30%. But for the most part, we’ve been able to continue living our lives. We work and stay active and spend time with our families (including Shaun’s three grandbabies). Every year, we have a rock-climbing event at our church, and every year, we put our harnesses on and scale that wall. Each year, it gets a little harder, and one year, we were so winded we slipped off halfway up that wall. Yet every year, we reach the top. It’s just one way to remind ourselves that while we may have heart failure, it does not have us.