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My Turn: The pup who saved my life

It started when her glasses became a chew toy. Then the optometrist discovered her dangerous level of blood pressure. Now she's living a more hopeful life.

By Melodie Gibson, Special to the Los Angeles Times

February 7, 2011

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My dog saved me.

My puppy Tacoma, a Lab/pit bull mix, did it by chewing up my only pair of eyeglasses.

At the time, in May 2008, I was 44 years old and weighed about 155 pounds. That was down from my peak of 180, but it was still too high for my 5-foot-5 frame. In fact, one of the reasons we adopted Tacoma was to get more exercise by walking him.

When I went to the optometrist, she took my blood pressure and could not get a reading below 201/154. Since I had been known to have "white coat syndrome," I was not concerned. But when she dilated my eyes, she could see from my blood vessels that I had a dangerous condition called hypertensive retinopathy.

The optometrist wanted me to go to the emergency room that night. But I felt fine, so I promised I would see my regular doctor the next day. When I did, I was referred to a heart specialist right away.

Upon entering the waiting room, I discovered I was probably the youngest person there. It was a reality check. The doctor took my blood pressure on every limb and could not get a reading below 225/174.

Thus began my journey to better health. The cardiologist prescribed a medication that was a combination ACE inhibitor and calcium channel blocker. He doubled the dose a week later, then added a diuretic a week after that, which finally brought my blood pressure down to a normal level.

My big epiphany occurred during the initial appointment, when the doctor ordered an ultrasound of my heart. Lying on the table, I flashed forward to my future and realized that I might not live to see my grandchildren because of the way I had been treating my body. I had smoked for 32 years, I drank three to four times a week and I ate lots of processed foods.

I vowed to change. Quitting smoking would be the best thing I could do for myself. And the doctor said that for every 10 pounds I lost, my blood pressure would go down by 10 points.

Within six months I had lost 13 pounds. I improved my eating habits and cut all the added salt from my diet. After 10 months I had quit smoking and was drinking only at social occasions. I swore I would not gain the weight back, so I signed up for a Pilates class. For the first time in my life, I found an exercise that I loved.

Now I do Pilates two to three times a week. I also do yoga weekly. My current weight is 130 pounds, and my waist size has gone from 36 inches to 30 inches. My arms are sculpted. I am discovering a level of fitness that I have never known.

These days, I take only one blood pressure pill a day, and I'm hoping to get off of that by my next doctor appointment in six months.

As for my lifesaver Tacoma, he and I are still walking every day.

Gibson is a senior project manager for a Herman Miller furniture dealership. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog Tacoma.

My Turn is a forum for readers to recount an experience related to health or fitness. Submissions should be no more than 500 words. They are subject to editing and condensation and become the property of The Times. Please e-mail health@latimes.com. We read every essay but can't respond to every writer.