Jan. 31, 2013, Macy's, New York City. It's 5 p.m., and the countdown begins: five, four, three, two and one... the building radiates crimson red in honor of the 10th National Wear Red Day. I am reunited with some of my "heart sisters," each of us plagued by heart disease, with various diagnoses. Each of us here to represent the AHA's Go Red For Women movement by sharing our story. Who knew, when I participated in the American Heart Association's Go Red For Women casting call, that I would be the second oldest woman chosen to represent the AHA's Go Red For Women as their group of national volunteers, their Go Red Women. Ten women, touching every age group: two in their 20s, three in their 30s, three in their 40s, and two of us in our 50s.
At 49, I was active, energetic, and health-conscious. Heart attack was the farthest thing from my mind. On Aug. 20, 2011, feeling unusually fatigued after a hot yoga class, I requested time to sit and "catch my breath." After the fatigue passed, I proceeded to drive my car. While driving, I considered a multitude of explanations for the nausea and profuse sweating I was experiencing -- heart attack wasn't one of them. Instead, I was sure I simply hadn't cooled down from class, and even the onset of menopause crossed my mind. The nausea, well, I considered that I could be suffering from food poisoning, since I attended the opening of a new restaurant the night before. No matter the cause, I was sure it was nothing critical.
I was able to drive six blocks to a friend's house, in an attempt to lie down, hoping to feel better. The symptoms persisted, and she convinced me to walk to a nearby urgent care clinic, because I believed "this just didn't warrant a 911 call." I was in a state of complete denial during this entire process, even as I arrived at the nearest hospital via ambulance. I hadn't experienced the shooting pain down my arm, nor the heavy chest pain normally associated with heart attacks. My friend informed my family about what was happening, but I called my family from the ambulance. I told them that "even though they say I'm having a heart attack, I'm not, no need to come to the hospital, I'll be home tonight."
Like many women, I was completely unaware that nausea and sweating are two major symptoms of a heart attack. The fact of a heart attack became a reality when I was told by the emergency room on-call cardiologist that I couldn't wait for family to arrive to the hospital for support. "There's no time to lose." He needed to perform a heart catheterization procedure immediately. The doctor assessed the damage and found one artery with a 75 percent blockage and another with an 80 percent blockage. Two stents were inserted, and cardiac rehab began.
My attempt to understand why this happened to me was very frustrating. As an avid exerciser, slowing down and rebuilding my body was a part of that frustration. I thought I was doing everything right before the heart attack. I have always concerned myself with sodium and fiber intake, due to a family history of high blood pressure, and being diagnosed myself with high blood pressure 10 years prior. Participation in the wellness program my employer instituted in August 2010 revealed excellent blood panel numbers, and that I had a 0.5 percent risk of having a heart attack within the next 10 years. Subsequently, one year later, after August 2011, that "watch list" expanded to include cholesterol and saturated fats. Genetic predisposition put me at risk for heart disease, that's why knowing your family health history is an important part of the education about heart disease.
I was always aware that the symptoms of a heart attack may differ in women than men. However, it wasn't until I participated in the cardiac rehab program that I learned of the those signs and symptoms. That's when my crusade to educate other women began. I contacted my local AHA, with a personal mission of becoming a mouthpiece for this dangerous illness. "Turning my mess into the message," to quote Robin Roberts, one who is courageously battling her own health barriers.
Encouraged to participate in the Go Red For Women campaign casting call, I was fortunate to be chosen as one of 10 national volunteers for this year. Chosen to spread the word to women (and men) that heart disease doesn't discriminate, so educate yourself that you may advocate for your health. While walking the other day, a woman stopped me and said, "I went to the doctor after seeing your video." That was music to my ears and made this entire journey well worth it.
More women die from heart disease than all cancers combined. I survived my heart attack, and you can prevent yours. Learn the simple steps you can take right now!
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