Mary Leah Coco believes knowing her family history and taking it seriously are the only reasons she's actually alive today.
Mary Leah's grandfather died of cardiomyopathy before she was born. Then, in 2008, her mother went into atrial fibrillation and was diagnosed with a hole in her heart at age 53. Mary Leah knew she should see a cardiologist too, but she was about to give birth at the time. She promised herself she would do it once she got through the pregnancy. For now, she was just relieved her mother was going to be able to see her granddaughter grow up.
Two years later, at age 30, Mary Leah finally made good on her promise and visited her mom's doctor. She'd had a few symptoms like lightheadedness, heart palpitations and nausea, but she had assumed these were the result of her busy lifestyle. She was working full time, finishing her Ph.D. and taking care of a toddler, after all. Following several normal results for weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, a test revealed that her heart was enlarged and was only functioning at 10 percent.
But this was not the worst news she would receive. After seven months of treatment, she learned that her heart condition had hardly improved. Surgeons implanted a dual chamber defibrillator, or as Mary Leah calls them, "jumper cables for the heart." The defibrillator will restart her heart if necessary, but won't improve the underlying condition. At this point, a heart transplant is necessary.
The fact that each generation of Mary Leah's family has suffered from heart disease makes her extra cautious when it comes to her daughter. In addition to making sure she lives an active, healthy lifestyle, she takes her for a cardiac check-up every year.
"I want to be sure she leads as healthy a life as possible starting now," Mary Leah says. "I'm working to create a legacy for her and others because I am alive and not a statistic."
In 2004, the American Heart Association, along with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute launched National Wear Red Day® to raise awareness of heart disease as the No. 1 killer of women. Since then, millions of women have been fighting heart disease individually and together as part of the American Heart Association's Go Red For Women® movement.
The good news is we've made great progress! In the last 10 years, more than 627,000 women's lives have been saved, and 330 fewer women are dying per day. We've also made women more aware of their greatest health risk. When Go Red For Women began, only 13 percent of women identified heart disease as their No. 1 killer; now 54 percent of women know that heart disease is the leading killer of women.
Although we have made tremendous strides towards ending this disease, we still have a long way to go. Heart disease still causes one in three women's deaths in the U.S. With the right information, education and care, heart disease in women can be treated, prevented, and even ended.
Throughout the many major political, social and technological milestones of the past decade, one thing has remained the same. Our goal. And we believe now is the time to stand stronger and demand change.
As we approach this milestone 10th National Wear Red Day, I challenge you to Go Red in bolder ways than ever before. This February, let's do more than wear red proudly and tell our social network. As the old adage goes, let's "Paint the town RED!" Help us turn American RED on every landmark, every Main Street, every organization and every home in America.
Let's make this the biggest National Wear Red Day ever! Because together, we can end heart disease.
To learn more about National Wear Red Day and the Go Red For Women movement, visit www.GoRedforWomen.org.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the American Heart Association in recognition of Wear Red Day, the aim of which is to raise awareness that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. To read all the stories in the series, click here.
The reality of being a woman — by the numbers. Learn more