My older sister had her first heart attack in 2004 at age 34 when I was in my final year of law school. That was a real wake-up call. My father already had two stents in his heart and so did my older brother. He was also on blood pressure medication. My sister suffered a second heart attack in 2007 and a third in 2013, prompting her triple bypass surgery. In addition, everybody in my family was—and still is—obese.
I vowed not to have the same fate. Heart disease wasn’t going to happen to me, so at 25, I made a lot of changes. At the time, I weighed 235 pounds and wore a size 20 clothing. I started going to the gym four times a week. In a little less than a year, I dropped 70 pounds. I also went on a low-fat diet, cutting out red meat, pork, fried foods and cheese, which was met with resistance from my Southern family. They’re the type of people who’d say, “You need to eat,” if I got down to a size 10. Essentially, they felt I was depriving myself of the foods I loved.
But despite everything I did, heart disease still caught up with me.
It was April 2013, shortly after my daughter, Ryan, celebrated her first birthday. I had felt strange, so I stayed home from work and took cold medication. That evening, I took a shower; when I got out, however, I could barely walk and had cold sweats. My husband, Ashante, took me to the emergency room.
The doctor’s exact words were, “I think you have a touch of pneumonia.” I was sent home and told to follow up with my family physician. After informing her of my family’s history of heart disease, she suggested I have blood drawn to check cholesterol levels.
The results were abysmal. I had the cholesterol of a 65-year-old man who engaged in no exercise at all. The physician immediately suggested I see a cardiologist to check my heart function. More troubling results sent me to the hospital for a heart catheterization.
Moments after the catheter was inserted, blockage to my left anterior descending artery, evidence of a massive heart attack, was found. The doctors thought they were going to have to implant a defibrillator to shock my heart with electrical energy in case I suffered another one. Luckily, that wasn’t necessary.
I wasn’t angry with God but asked Him, “Why is this happening to me? I’m a faithful person.” I couldn’t stop thinking about my daughter. My mother had died in a car accident when I was just a year old. My child couldn’t lose me before she was able to know who I was.
Since the heart attack, I’ve learned more about the prevalence of heart disease on my mother’s side of the family. One aunt has four stents, and the other has high cholesterol. I’d never thought about their heart health because both are considered underweight.
I also learned that heart disease can be 80-percent preventable when you make time for your annual well-woman visits with your physician (see sidebar). Before this happened to me, I didn’t know what my cholesterol numbers were. I couldn’t have told you what my blood pressure was. The doctor told me they were fine and normal, so I just went on about my business. Now, I frequently engage with my doctor and ask questions about my health.
Knowing what I know now, I would’ve pushed my doctors harder to monitor my heart health. They often say exercising and dieting might have made the difference between life and death for me, but I still think I could’ve done more to prevent the heart attack.
I’m now living at a level I didn’t know was possible. My heart attack, I believe, was divine intervention; I had asked God, “Why me?” and perhaps the answer is that I was to be a messenger. The American Heart Association chose me to be one of its 2016 Real Women, a sisterhood of strong women who raise awareness about heart disease.
Some things are still a struggle for me, such as my weight. I also have two stents in my heart and may not be able to conceive another child because of the stress that pregnancy would cause to my body. But I remain hopeful.
My brothers, sister, father and stepmother are still works in progress. But every time we have a family event, I push them to make changes on the dinner table. It’s about moderation. Let’s watch our sodium intake. Let’s eat more whole foods because it’s better for us. No matter how good you may look—or even how good you may feel—a heart attack could be just a moment away.
Get Ready for Your Well-Woman Visit: Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of American women and disproportionately so for Black women, with 50,000 deaths each year. But 80 percent of all cardiovascular disease, such as stroke, may be preventable. Take your health into your own hands by scheduling annual well-woman visits to monitor cholesterol levels, blood pressure and more. Here’s what you can do before the exam:
Learn your family history.
Ask your parents and grandparents about their health issues, and prepare to bring them to your physician’s attention. Since most heart problems are hereditary, there’s an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
Make a list of questions for your doctor.
Been feeling dizzy or fatigued lately? What about sore joints? These issues may seem minor now, but they could be symptoms of a much bigger health concern. Write it all down, and talk to your doctor about every ache and pain.
Know the names and dosage of your medications.
Your physician may not be aware of everything you’re taking. Make a list before your visit, including over-the-counter medicines, vitamins and dietary supplements (even herbal ones), and tell your doctor during the exam.
Don’t eat for several hours before the exam.