As a seasoned broadcast journalist, I've made a career of researching a myriad of topics and investigating dozens of stories, always priding myself on being well-informed. But on June 6, 2002, a tragedy unfolded before me for which I was totally unprepared despite the warning signs. That Thursday morning, as our youngest son, Julian, was having his breakfast and his older brother, Victor, was still sleeping, their father and my husband, Tony, suddenly began complaining of dizziness, shortness of breath and weakness. For the last few months, he'd been at the office around the clock making sure the technical operations were in place for the upcoming launch of a new Spanish-language television network. Granted, his stress levels were unlike anything I had seen in our 18 years of marriage, but between his cool demeanor and his slender and athletic build (a towering 6'2"), the last thing I imagined was that his heart was about to fail.
Within seconds he became pale and unresponsive. I had asked him to lie down as I propped pillows under his legs and beneath his head. But as he closed his eyes and wandered off in relaxation, I thought, the only response I got was a loud grunt... a noise I had only read about before then. It was at that moment and with paramedics on the phone that I came to grips with an ending I didn't and couldn't accept. How could this man, who looked so healthy, who had never complained of any pain, just suddenly collapse and fade away? How could this be happening to us, two well-educated and informed professionals? As my sons stood at the door staring in disbelief and hearing my frantic 911 phone call pleading for help, they too knew that something dreadful had just happened. Their faces of disbelief are forever etched in my mind and heart. Victor was 15, Julian only 10. How quickly their lives, our lives, had changed.
Tony never awoke. Doctors say the attack was so massive he probably never felt any pain. In the days that followed, I would remember our conversations about the future. Perhaps it was a premonition or perhaps just his wish, but a week before he passed, he had jokingly said to us that when he died, he didn't want to suffer a prolonged illness, he wanted to go quick. And quick he went. He was only 52 years old.
It wasn't until about two weeks later, when I read his personal agenda, a black-leather bound notebook that he carried with him everywhere. There were three questions written on the first page: When will my shortness of breath go away? Why I am always tired lately? Why does my left arm get numb? As I read these symptoms that he had never mentioned to me, I traced his handwriting with my fingers and wept... the warning signs were there in black and white. Tony was in the process of getting a series of stress tests done and had obviously written down his concerns so that he could discuss these issues with his doctor. Adding to the mix was his family history, his grandfather had died of heart disease and so had his father. And to make matters worse, Tony was a smoker. Although he had attempted to stop on numerous occasions, lately he had picked up the habit again, blaming his work load and looming deadlines as the causes for his nicotine setback.
One of the most helpful visits I received in the weeks following his death was that of my children's pediatrician. Dr. Sarah, as we lovingly called her, stopped by to deliver her personal condolences, but she was also concerned about the boys. She advised me to have them examined for any pre-existing heart condition and reminded me that from now on, they should get periodic health exams that include coronary disease screenings. At that moment, I realized that Victor and Julian would always have to be mindful of their blood pressure, develop a regular exercise routine and abstain from smoking and eating a lot of high-fat foods. I also changed in many aspects. As the only mom and dad they had, I had to be healthy in order to raise them. It was then I decided to speak publicly about our loss, hoping that our story would save other potential victims of heart disease. I encouraged families to watch their intake of fat, to exercise more and not be scared to voice any health issues. Sometimes Hispanics don't seek medical help until it's too late. That mentality had to change.
My boys are now grown men. Victor is 26 and has followed in my steps. He works as a sports anchor at a local television station and Julian, who is now 21, will be graduating in May with a degree in Political Science and Entrepreneurship. They are both healthy, do not smoke, watch their diets, love to work out and run and are keenly aware of the signs of heart disease.
As their mom, I couldn't be prouder and know that Tony is smiling down at the fine young men his boys have become. There is nothing that will bring their father back, but we cherish the memories and share our story so that hopefully others will listen to their hearts and be able to recognize and stop this silent killer before it strikes again.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the American Heart Association in recognition of National Wear Red Day (Feb. 7, 2014), 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. And to follow the conversation on Twitter -- and share a picture of yourself wearing red -- find the hashtag #RedSelfie.
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