Woman's heart conditions took her from dancing to despair – then a new direction

By Leslie Barker, American Heart Association News

Allison Graff has survived atrial fibrillation, mini-strokes, cardiomyopathy and brain surgery to correct moyamoya disease. (Photo courtesy of Allison Graff)
Allison Graff has survived atrial fibrillation, mini-strokes, cardiomyopathy and brain surgery to correct moyamoya disease. (Photo courtesy of Allison Graff)

At 32, Allison Graff saw her life as a treasure. She loved her job in Florida. She owned her own home. She discovered the delights of dancing, which she did at clubs as often as possible. Working up a sweat and getting all tired out just seemed to be the price she paid for having fun.

But when the sweating continued long past leaving the dance floor, and when even taking a shower totally wiped her out, she knew something was wrong.

A visit to the emergency room confirmed her fears. And while that trip to the ER in 2008 started an often-exhausting journey of high hopes and devastating despair, she still considers what she did that fateful day "the best decision I could have made."

An angiogram showed no blockage. Good news, of course. However, an electrocardiogram showed the electrical system of her heart wasn't working correctly.

We can put our time and energy into figuring out why it happened, the cardiologist told her, or we can spend our time and energy getting you better.

Graff opted for the latter. She moved back home to West Monroe, New York, where her parents helped her develop and maintain healthy habits. She started taking prescription medications, stopped smoking and cut sodium from her diet. She and her father went on long walks together. Eventually, she got stronger.

"Family love is powerful medicine," Graff said. "When you're recuperating and surrounded by people helping you do the right things, that allows you to take a step back and say, 'Hmm, what's best for me now?'"

She took a part-time, low-stress job, then later began working full time in the arts world, which she loved. She kept getting better. She married and in 2013 had a baby, a daughter she named Avery.

"My heart had really responded to the medication and the new understanding that life wasn't about how much I could do in a day," she said. "I was focusing on my family and on my health. I practiced yoga. I did a lot of good things for my body."

Then in 2016, her father died. He had been battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig's disease. Graff had helped her mother and sister care for him, which was a labor of love, but also tremendously stressful. Her health began to decline again and her marriage took a downturn. She and her husband separated in 2019, and Graff and Avery moved in with her mother.

Graff started smoking again. Stress engulfed her.

In 2020, a day after her divorce was finalized, Graff stood up while visiting with a friend and passed out. At the ER, she was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. Doctors implanted a loop recorder to monitor her heart. She was sent home and told to take it easy.

She tried. But she developed heart palpitations, became depressed, lost her appetite – and didn't know what to do. Then she had a mini-stroke.

"I felt my lip go numb," Graff said. "When I reached out to touch my face, I had no control over my arm."

Tests at the hospital confirmed mini-strokes in four areas of her brain. Additionally, she was diagnosed with moyamoya disease, a constriction of blood vessels feeding the brain. If one of those vessels were to pop, she'd have a hemorrhagic stroke.

For someone with atrial fibrillation, strokes and mini-strokes are "quite common," said Dr. Jeffrey Ascenzo, Graff's cardiologist.

"This is especially true when the arrhythmia occurs only intermittently and sometimes without any other symptoms," he said. "The underlying stroke risk is why atrial fibrillation is such a dangerous arrhythmia."

It's also the most common arrhythmia, he said, but not so much in a woman Graff's age. Nor is another of her diagnoses: cardiomyopathy. Graff couldn't do anything about why she developed these conditions. She could, though, have brain surgery to correct moyamoya disease.

So, a year ago – after focusing on reducing stress, creating a stable life for herself and Avery, and adopting a make-lemonade-out-of-lemons mantra – she did.

Allison Graff is
Allison Graff is "living life to the fullest" with a healthy lifestyle, taking her medications and regular medical follow-ups. (Photo courtesy of Allison Graff)

Graff may need additional surgeries in the future. But for now, she's focusing on living life to the fullest, moment by moment. That includes teaching yoga, identifying her feelings, listening to her body, and saying no when she needs to say no.

"She's staying active, eating right and, especially, staying compliant with her medications and regular follow-up visits," Ascenzo said. "I see no reason why she cannot live out and fulfill a normal life span."

Graff said her emotions are more constant these days. And while she may not be dancing the nights away as she was before her heart issues began, she has found another source of joy.

"I'm doing handstands," she said. "Before all this, I was too scared to try."

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

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