ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) – American Heart Month has come to an end, but heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the United States. Now COVID-19 is also playing a role in cardiovascular health.

Heart health is a core aspect of life for Devon Brzezynski.

“I told myself at a really young age that I was going to take care of myself,” she said.

Brzezynski did not have much of a choice: she was born with a congenital heart defect. Her parents made the difficult decision to put their newborn under the knife for surgery.

“It was a really hard decision for them, because they had already suffered the loss of a child before me,” Brzezynski said.

Yet a successful operation let her have a lively childhood and grow into a healthy adult.

“I haven’t had any complications since. So I’m really thankful for that,” Brzezynski said.

Now the central Virginia resident is sharing her survival story on a national platform, after being selected as one of the American Heart Association’s “Real Women” for 2021.

Her message is all the more important now with COVID-19 posing additional risks to heart health.

“COVID, when it is severe, it can put a lot of strain on the heart,” Dr. Matthew Schumaeker, a cardiologist with Carilion Clinic, said.

Dr. Schumaeker says because heart disease and coronavirus have similar symptoms, diagnosis can become complicated.

“The pain that could demonstrate that a woman is having a heart attack could be shortness of breath, or mild discomfort the chest. COVID also can cause those symptoms,” he said.

Health experts predict in years to come, COVID-19 will send more people through hospital doors with heart disease issues. That is because coronavirus can damage the heart.

“Almost everyone with COVID has some degree of inflammation of the heart,” Dr. Schumaeker said. “We don’t really know whether or not COVID can cause heart-related symptoms in people who don’t otherwise have heart disease.”

COVID-19 has Brzezynski on high alert. She was vaccinated this month and continues to social distance.

However, it will not keep her from sharing her message, aiming to keep other patients from feeling weak of heart.

“Fear starts to creep in because we don’t want to repeat the heart disease,” said Brzezynski. “I really want people to know that they are not their diagnosis.”

Health experts say even modest changes to diet and physical activity can reduce the risk of cardiac events by 80%.

Copyright 2021 WDBJ. All rights reserved.