Today, Suzanne Rizkallah, a 35-year-old mother of two, is an avid jogger.Suzanne Rizkallah

Before last February, she had never exercised in her life. But after back pain turned out to be a symptom of heart disease, she adopted a healthy lifestyle that includes daily activity.

When a CT (computed tomography) scan did not identify the source of the back pain, she was referred to a cardiologist. She sought out Dennis Friedman, M.D., medical director of cardiovascular services at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center.

“A woman may present with unusual symptoms such as angina, or chest pain, in the center or left of the chest, as well as in the arms, jaw and even the back, as in Suzanne’s case,” Dr. Friedman explains.

A nuclear stress test revealed coronary artery disease—and evidence of a possible heart attack. Rizkallah also had shortness of breath, which was diagnosed and treated as asthma two years before.

“In retrospect, this shortness of breath may have been an atypical sign of angina,” Dr. Friedman says. “Her family history of heart disease was also a clue. After we clarified the diagnosis and therapy, we emphasized risk-factor modification, particularly diet, smoking and exercise.”

Just three days after her test, Rizkallah found herself at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center for catheterization—a medical procedure in which a thin, flexible tube is inserted through a blood vessel in the wrist, groin or neck to diagnose and treat heart conditions. The catheterization revealed extensive coronary artery disease.

“The three major arteries to her heart and the side branches were blocked,” Dr. Friedman says. “She needed surgery to restore long-term blood flow.”

Rizkallah was transferred to Washington Adventist Hospital for coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery with cardiac surgeon Anthony Rongione, M.D. “I was so scared. I kept thinking about my kids,” she says. “But then I met Dr. Rongione and he was so caring. Just like Dr. Friedman, he put me at ease.”

Says Dr. Rongione: “During the surgery, I was able to graft, or connect, healthy arteries from Suzanne’s arm to the blocked coronary arteries. It essentially created new pathways for the blood to get to her heart.”

Five days after surgery, Rizkallah was back home and ready to begin her rehabilitation. “Recovery from CABG takes time, and there is still a risk that a blockage could return,” Dr. Rongione says. “A patient could lessen that risk by living a heart-healthy lifestyle.”

Rizkallah is doing just that under Dr. Friedman’s guidance. “I feel like I’m free,” Rizkallah says. “I’ve quit smoking. I exercise every day. I used to eat out a lot, but now I cook healthy foods at home.”

She has lost more than 20 pounds since her surgery. “My diet is forever,” she says. “Not because of my weight, but because of my heart.”