At first, I thought it was first-date jitters. I was a young, single mom at a nice restaurant with a guy I really liked. I was both excited and anxious, and I got a new outfit and got my hair done. But while we waited for our table, my excitement turned into something more. I began to sweat and feel tightness in my chest -- it was as if my heart was being squeezed. It was not cute. I was so embarrassed and a bit frightened, so I excused myself to splash some water on my face.
When I was in the restroom trying to gather my thoughts, I was so scared. I was afraid and anxious at the same time. I was completely ignorant to what was going on. I didn't understand it.
I had always thought of myself as perfectly healthy. I was an active child growing up, and still felt energetic and strong as a young adult. It never even entered my mind that I was having a stroke.
When I returned to my date, I realized that my vision was blurred, and I was unable to lift my arm. My date suggested we go to a hospital, but I didn't want to be any trouble. I politely insisted that he take me home.
Once we got home, I could no longer downplay my symptoms; we headed back out to the hospital. Scared and disoriented, I was shocked when a nurse began to scold me.
The nurse fussed at me for not taking my blood pressure medication. By this time I was having trouble communicating, but I managed to tell the nurse that not only was I not on medication, but I had never had hypertension or high blood pressure in my life.
Tests confirmed that I had, in fact, had a stroke. I learned that I had been at risk all along. Like many other African-Americans, I had a strong family history of high blood pressure and heart disease. Unfortunately, this wasn't something my family discussed until after my stroke.
After being released from the hospital, I began eating better and exercising more. But I didn't truly commit to making healthy changes in my life until several years later -- when I suffered a second stroke.
This time, I recognized the symptoms and got to the hospital right away. And now I've changed my life: eating right, exercising regularly and tracking my blood pressure every day.
And that guy who took me out on the date? A year later, since we didn't get to have dinner that night, he took me out to the same restaurant. Later that night, he proposed to me. And we've been married for seven years now.
I "Go Red" for all of the women in my family. I am dedicated to sharing the truth about the dangers of heart disease and telling others the importance of knowing their cholesterol and blood pressure numbers and family history. I want to tell every woman out there to know their personal risk, and I start by making sure my four sisters and my two best friends know their numbers and get their hearts checked.
In May 2011, I became a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association's Go Red For Women movement. I never thought that sharing my story could save so many lives, encourage someone else to listen to their bodies and help others live a healthier lifestyle. The American Heart Association is making a difference that can impact millions of lives each year. That is most important to me. I am so thankful to be here in more ways than one.
For more by Shermane Winters-Wofford, click here.
For more on heart disease, click here.