Faces of Long Island celebrates the uniqueness of everyday Long Islanders. In their own words, they tell us about their life experiences, challenges and triumphs. Newsday launched this social media journey into the human experience to shine a light on the diverse people of this wonderful place we call home.

‘The doctor explained this was uncommon for a teenager and that we needed to get to the bottom of this.’

Charlotte Muller, Northport

“When I was 17, my mom unexpectedly passed away. It was so jarring. She was 51 years old. She looked completely healthy; she was petite, led a relatively stress-free life and yet she passed away from a heart attack. Grieving at 17 was tough. That’s the age where you’re about to go to college and figure out who you are as a person, and without my mom, it just turned my world upside down. It was difficult for my family – my dad and my two older sisters. My dad was by our side every step of the way.

“We found out after she passed away that my mom had familial hypercholesterolemia (FH). It’s an inherited cholesterol disorder that affects 1 in 250 people. What happens is that internally, the body creates excess cholesterol, and if left untreated, arteries clog rapidly, leading to early heart attack or stroke. You can look healthy, exercise, and eat well, and still have the disorder. We didn’t know she had it, but we did know that she had high cholesterol. It took just one heart attack to lose her. Her father died around the same age in the same way. It was a clear pattern on my mom’s side.

“A few months after I lost her, my dad pushed me to see my doctor to get my levels checked out. They found out that I had really, really high cholesterol. The doctor explained this was uncommon for a teenager and that we needed to get to the bottom of this. Turns out, I have the same disorder that my mom had. I have familial hypercholesterolemia.

“When I got diagnosed with FH, I was in shock. I was petite, like my mom, and visually healthy, but I completely changed my diet and started exercising immediately. This lowered my cholesterol 100 points, but it wasn’t enough. My cholesterol was still super high.

“This was the summer before college. I didn’t feel like I fit in that well at college because I had just lost my mom, I couldn’t eat any of the food in the campus cafeterias, and I wasn’t partying or drinking. I felt like an outsider, just not your typical college kid. It wasn’t working for me, so I transferred to a local college to be closer to home. I started exercising more and realized I love the way exercise feels. I became a certified group fitness instructor, personal trainer and a yoga teacher. I wanted to work in the health and wellness industry professionally.”

One of my missions in life is to help people get the diagnosis because FH is a very common health disorder, but a lot of people don’t know they have it.

“About 10 years ago, I created a personal brand called Breathe Strength. It was a combination of yoga and strength training. At the time, I was advocating for heart health and teaching wellness, but I wanted to do so on a larger scale. After a few years, I opened a yoga studio in New York City, but unfortunately, it couldn’t withstand the effects of COVID. I didn’t give up. A little over a year ago, my husband and I joined forces professionally to open a gym in East Northport called Pulse Barbell Club that includes strength training and yoga! It’s this beautiful combination of everything we need.

“My husband is the main coach in the strength training side of our gym. He has Crohn’s disease, so both of us have our own setbacks with our health, which is why we find wellness so important. I’m also a CPR instructor, so I certify people to save lives! We didn’t open our business only for ourselves; we want to better our community, and beyond, and show them how important and enjoyable exercising can be. It makes you feel good. I have people from all over the world who join in on virtual yoga sessions. It’s a rewarding path, and our community is so strong.

“Aside from our business and teaching yoga classes, I also do a lot of work with the Family Heart Foundation. They aim to spread awareness about inherited disorders and heart health. I volunteer for them and spread as much awareness as possible. If I could tell one thing to people, it’s to know your risk for heart disease.

“One of my missions in life is to help people get the diagnosis, because FH is a very common health disorder, but a lot of people don’t know they have it. If you have high cholesterol, specifically high LDL, ask yourself a few questions. Ask yourself, ‘Do I live a relatively healthy lifestyle, eat well and move my body?’ If you answer yes, then ask yourself, ‘Do I have any family history of heart attacks, strokes or high cholesterol?’ If that answer is also yes, then chances are you may have FH. From there, you would see a cardiologist and opt for a genetic test. Somebody with FH needs medicine.”

I’m not a failure for needing medicine.

“I’ve tried everything I possibly could to not be on medicine, and I mean everything, but I need it. My liver is creating way more cholesterol than the average person. I could cut out meat and sugar and cholesterol completely, but my numbers will still be high because my body’s making too much of it. I’m on biweekly injections that I take in my stomach. It’s an amazing drug. Medicine is saving my life. I used to be anti-medicine and I considered myself a failure if I had to rely on it, but it’s a learning process. I’m not a failure for needing medicine. It wasn’t the way I was living that caused this. It’s just my body not functioning normally, and my medication helps me live a normal life.

“I want to keep this momentous push forward to get everybody healthy. I have this framework that I call the Four Pillars of Sustainable Wellness, which is basically the backbone behind everything that I offer and teach: mental health, physical health, spiritual health and social health. If we work on these four aspects of ourselves, then everything else will work out.”

Interviewed by Melanie Gulbas