The hotel was booked, the bags were packed, and Cynthia Royal headed out with her mother, Joan, for a vacation-kickoff dinner. The women were flying to Walt Disney World that evening, right before the Fourth of July, 2004. But after one bite of chicken chow mein, Cynthia felt ill; within hours, she was feverish and vomiting. Still, she boarded the plane. There was no way Cynthia was going to let a stomach bug keep her from going on this much-anticipated vacation. But the 45-year-old spent the entire two-hour flight with her head planted on her tray table. Joan played nursemaid the next day as Cynthia was too sick to leave the hotel room.
Then, the second night, at 2 a.m., Cynthia couldn’t catch her breath. It felt like an elephant was sitting on her chest. She debated what to do for two hours before she gave in to a nagging feeling that her illness was more than just a stomach bug. Cynthia went to a hospital emergency room and had a blood test that helped prove the improbable: She was having a heart attack. The cause: salmonella bacteria from her recent bout of food poisoning.
Most people associate salmonella with diarrhea and dehydration. But in extremely rare cases, the bacteria breach the intestinal wall and enter the bloodstream, where they can latch onto arterial plaque, form clots, and block blood flow to the heart. Just days after Cynthia ate the contaminated Chinese food, her heart’s blood supply had been choked off.
Cynthia was treated with clot-busting drugs, given a month’s supply of antibiotics, and discharged the next day. Once home, she started to feel better, but fatigue made it difficult for her to juggle her job in information technology with her hobby of training horses on her Virginia farm.
Doctors eventually ordered more tests and found that the arteries leading to Cynthia’s heart were badly swollen, restricting blood flow. The swelling was due to lingering inflammation from the salmonella that was exacerbated by an inherited type of high cholesterol. Cynthia needed a double bypass operation, in which blood vessels taken from other parts of the body are used to route blood around blockages.
Cynthia had a lot of time to think while recovering from surgery. When she returned to her IT job, she handed in her resignation, emptied her 401(k), and moved to San Diego, where she now trains and performs with a team of horses. “I really do believe that this whole salmonella encounter had a purpose,” she says. “Today, I’m on my life’s true mission.”
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