Combat veteran Dani Aylsworth shares her compelling story about overcoming PTSD, alcohol misuse, and heart failure to win back her health one battle at a time.
At 23 years old, Dani Aylsworth was a new mom and the only woman in her special forces unit of the U.S. Army. Deployed to Afghanistan, she found herself trying to fit in with her male counterparts.
“I had no idea what I was walking into. It was hard being the only female in that battalion, and everyone counted me out from the start,” Aylsworth told Healthline.
As the loss of fellow soldiers and the trauma of war set in — and as she tried to deal with being away from her daughter while in the middle of a divorce — Aylsworth began drinking alcohol to cope.
“Alcohol was never a part of my life. I wasn’t a drinker at all, but alcohol in the military is socially accepted, and [drinking together] is how you build [camaderie],” Aylsworth said.
Before she knew it, she developed alcohol dependence.
“I now know my grandpa on my mom’s side died of alcoholism in his 40s… I didn’t realize there was a physical dependency that could happen. I thought I was just drinking with my friends, and the next thing you know, 6 years of my life was lost from alcoholism,” Aylsworth said.
After she served her time in the Army and returned home, drinking became a normal part of her day and a way to manage symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
As she struggled with her mental health, Aylsworth didn’t recognize her physical health declining.
When she became ill with chest congestion in 2017, she visited a Veterans Affairs clinic, where she was given medication for an upper respiratory tract infection and sent home.
Turns out Aylsworth had pneumonia that turned into a life threatening infection called sepsis.
“I was walking around untreated for 3 weeks until it ended up in my bloodstream. My lungs were completely encapsulated with full fluid and my organs immediately shut down,” Aylsworth said.
She was put into a medically induced coma for 12 days to help her body fight the infection. While in the coma, she went through alcohol withdrawal.
“The doctors didn’t know I had a drinking problem and couldn’t figure out what else was going on. I was fighting two battles unrelated, but somehow they crashed into each other,” Aylsworth said.
When Aylsworth woke up from the coma, she learned the infection caused heart failure. She was sent home with medication and a wearable defibrillator vest.
For the next year, she tried hard to get back into the role of a single mom despite going in and out of the hospital. She fought to quit drinking, but couldn’t make it past 60 days of sobriety.
“I didn’t know how sick I was until my cardiologist told me I needed a heart transplant or I’d die,” Aylsworth said.
The next day she drove a state away to an emergency room, where she stayed for more than 2 weeks. Doctors started a heart transplant workup, which involved weekly blood and lab draws.
“I thought if I went in there before drinking, they wouldn’t know, but they could totally [see] the alcohol in my system, and I got denied for the heart transplant. I tried to lie to them, but it was madness,” she said.
When she received a letter informing her that she wasn’t eligible for a heart transplant due to alcohol consumption, she vowed to make changes.
“I couldn’t die like that. My daughter couldn’t know that the reason I wasn’t there for her was because I was too proud to get help,” Aylsworth said.
In 2018, she received an internal defibrillator (IED) implant, which detected two cardiac arrests and restored her heartbeat while she slept.
Aylsworth also went into a detox program, received PTSD treatment, and participated in 12 weeks of cardiac rehab.
“Being as sick as I was, I was scared to sweat. I had to build my confidence back up,” she said.
When the pandemic hit, she made a plan to walk 2 miles every day at a nearby park.
“I just started feeling better, but then I started walking faster, and taught myself how to cook, since growing up I wasn’t taught how to eat healthy… I learned how to use veggies and herbs to give food taste since I can’t use salt,” she said.
She also embraced self-love and self-care, and found comfort in journaling, practicing gratitude, and connecting with friends. She went back to school to obtain a bachelor’s degree in social work.
“As part of my healing, I created an environment for myself where I can learn and grow and heal. I’ve learned about my body and what I need and don’t need to help me make myself feel good,” Aylsworth said.
All the work and care she put toward her physical and mental health paid off: She no longer needs a heart transplant.
“Once you accept how much control you really do have… and take responsibility, [you can] turn things around. I just want other women to know if you feel horrible, it doesn’t have to be like that,” Aylsworth said.
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To spread awareness about heart health, Aylsworth teamed up with the American Heart Association (AHA) Go Red for Women initiative.
“I’d like women to make changes to promote their heart health. As a heart disease survivor, I know it can be done, but I also know my health is conditional. My body doesn’t love me unless I love it back. It is the most conditional relationship I’ve ever been in,” Aylsworth said.
The AHA reports that while heart disease is the number one killer of women, it’s preventable about 80 percent of the time.
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and a medical expert for Go Red for Women, said educating women about heart disease risks is a goal of this initiative.
She points to an AHA survey that found 90 percent of women indicated they knew that heart disease was the number one killer of women, but when asked what their risk of heart disease was, only 13 percent of the respondents recognized heart disease as their own personal risk factor.
“So, it was everyone else’s problem, but not their own,” Steinbaum told Healthline.
While understanding that the risks are complicated, Steinbaum believes part of the disconnect is that women think taking care of themselves part of the time is enough.
“[They think] if they do all the right things — they walk a little bit and don’t eat ice cream every day, but only 3 days a week, then they’re doing a good job,” she said.
However, how you conduct yourself most of the time might not be enough either.
“The point of this is that everyone’s physiology, metabolism, genetics are all different, and you really need to do a deep dive into what your own personal risks are so you can figure out how to manage it better,” Steinbaum said.
Talking with your doctor or visiting a CVS MinuteClinic about your numbers for total cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and body mass index (BMI) can help determine your risk of developing conditions such as angina (chest pain), heart attack, stroke (caused by blood clots), and peripheral artery disease (PAD).
Knowing your family history is also important, added Steinbaum.
“If you have a strong family history, you might need to dig deeper and figure out things in a little different way,” she said.
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While managing your heart health can seem complicated, Steinbaum said it’s never too late to start.
“The heart is the most malleable organ. It will respond to you… Every day you get to make a choice about how you will live that day, and if yesterday was a bad one, make today a better one,” she said.
Breaking it down in the following ways can make it more attainable.
Nourish your body
Making food choices that nourish your body can help improve cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels, as well as maintain a moderate weight.
“In general, the best diet that I recommend is really the Mediterranean diet, which is filled with vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, good fat, omega-3 fatty acids,” Steinbaum said.
Carolyn Raikhlin, registered dietitian and head of nutrition at Upfield, recommends filling your plate with foods that represent a rainbow of colors.
“Dark, leafy greens, oranges and red peppers, blueberries, tomatoes — even fresh herbs — are examples of color-rich foods loaded with vitamins, fiber, and minerals,” Raikhlin told Healthline.
When it comes to fat, she said “bad” fats like saturated and trans fats found in dairy butter, shortening, lard, and coconut oil can raise blood cholesterol levels.
The AHA recommends replacing foods high in saturated fats with foods high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, because these fats can help lower cholesterol.
For instance, Raikhlin said I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! Original spread (which is certified heart-healthy by the AHA) has 70 percent less saturated fat than dairy butter and 375 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids per serving.
However, she noted that fat is an essential part of the diet, and about 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from fat.
“It protects our organs, helps us absorb certain vitamins, and is part of every cell membrane in the body,” Raikhlin said.
The AHA recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week. However, that recommendation isn’t necessarily for everyone.
“It depends on what your intrinsic cardiovascular state is and how much you exercise, and how physically fit you are, so understating what your unique situation is really is something that helps drive you to understand what the diet and exercise looks like for you,” Steinbaum said.
Managing stress can seem like an overwhelming task at times.
“I can tell people, ‘You need stress management,’ and they are like, ‘What?’” Steinbaum said.
She suggests trying out different ways to reduce stress levels until you find what works and what you enjoy. This can include things like yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, journaling, or more.
“Everyone needs to find what works for them,” she said.
Be mindful of your mind
According to a scientific statement from the AHA, unmanaged mental health conditions like depression and anxiety are associated with a less healthy heart and body.
Steinbaum said that depression is a greater risk factor for women. It’s also more prevalent in women.
Depression can also increase the risk of heart disease. As can PTSD.
However, positive psychological health characteristics, such as happiness, optimism, gratitude, sense of purpose, life satisfaction, and mindfulness, are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and death.
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, medical news, and inspirational people. She writes with empathy and accuracy and has a knack for connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.