Healthy food—and music—help mom with heart failure maintain energy, avoid hospital

Music is a release for LaTonia Hills, a 38-year-old single mom who has survived three open heart surgeries and a host of other health challenges.

She plays keyboard and saxophone at church and loves writing songs and creating beats. It’s one way to take her mind off of her pain.

Pain has been a constant for LaTonia. It started when, at the age of 25, she visited a dentist to take care of an abscess on her gum. Within a week, she was in the hospital with a fever of 106 degrees. She’d developed endocarditis, an infection where bacteria from another part of the body, like the mouth, spreads through the bloodstream and attacks heart tissue.

She had open heart surgery. And then another. And another.

Thirteen years have passed since that visit to the dentist. LaTonia, a former correctional officer, has congestive heart failure, left-side weakness that may have resulted from a small stroke, and a series of other health complications stemming from her heart condition or the medications she takes to manage it. And she has a pacemaker.

She also has a 6-year-old son.

“He’s my miracle baby,” says LaTonia, hugging her son. Zaccheus is a bright and inquisitive kid who loves Legos and airplanes. He also has autism.

“It’s a full-time job with him,” says LaTonia. “You need to take more time, be patient, and really listen to him.” 

Juggling multiple health diagnoses, including heart failure, while parenting a child with autism can be challenging. Preparing heart-healthy food while doing both adds another layer of difficulty. Fortunately, a home health nurse noticed that meal preparation was an obstacle for LaTonia and suggested medically tailored meals from Project Angel Heart.

 “It’s difficult for me to stand for long periods of time,” said LaTonia. “It’s easy to get short of breath or fatigued.” And due to fluctuations in her blood pressure, she often gets light-headed or dizzy.

“Before getting the meals,” said LaTonia, “I was in and out of the hospital all the time. Last year was the first year I was hospital-free.”

Her doctor says her heart is doing well, something LaTonia attributes to eating the right foods and feeling less stress, easing strain on her heart. “Eating the low-sodium meals and the vegetables and fruit provided make me feel like I have a little more energy,” said LaTonia. “Before I started getting the meals, there were days where I was very, very fatigued. I have fewer days like that now.”

 Zacchaeus also receives healthy meals from Project Angel Heart. He likes the mac-and-cheese and the egg scrambles.

Meals are one thing they can do together. Music is another. When she’s feeling good, you’ll find LaTonia and her son at church, LaTonia playing keyboard or saxophone, and Zaccheus singing along.

“When you work on music,” says LaTonia, “it takes your mind off of other things. It takes your mind off of pain. It’s like you’re in another world.”