Stroke Was A Wake-Up Call For Life-Changing Decisions

02/20/2017 03:06 pm ET Updated Feb 24, 2017

By Lilian Tsi Stielstra

When my husband decided to overhaul his diet in 2006, I wasn’t interested in giving up my favorite foods like ice cream or white rice. I told him, “I don’t want to eat to live; I live to eat.”

I was juggling a busy schedule with a full-time sales job that had me frequently entertaining clients or eating fast food on the road. I often skipped breakfast, considering it my version of a diet, and gained more than 25 pounds. I didn’t want to accept that I was getting bigger. In 2010, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure.

Six months later, I had a stroke, when I was 46. I immediately recognized my stroke symptoms and didn’t experience any residual effects following treatment. But it was the wake-up call I needed to take charge of my health. Testing also showed I had another risk factor for heart disease: high cholesterol and high triglycerides. Having built a career in largely a man’s world, I recall thinking, “I am finally equal to a man – I have heart disease.”

My view of heart disease as a “man’s disease” has changed. Each year, roughly the same number of women die of heart disease as men. In fact, according to the American Heart Association Go Red For Women movement, cardiovascular diseases are responsible for nearly one in three deaths for women each year. But there’s good news: it’s 80 percent preventable with education and action.

After my stroke, I learned more about the lifestyle changes I could make to lower my risks and set a better example for my children. Growing up in Singapore, heart health was never discussed. My father, who died from a heart attack at age 81, experienced mild strokes, but the family never talked about it. I remember my mom switching to steamed fish and getting dragged along for walks, but I didn’t put it together until my own stroke. My parents made changes, but they never talked to me about why it was important to make them.

After my stroke, a neighbor offered to walk with me at 6 a.m. each day, providing the accountability I needed to stick with it. For added motivation, I pledged to run the 7.5-mile Bay to Breakers race through San Francisco by age 50, pushing herself to run a little longer and farther each week. I also changed my diet, swapping white rice for whole grains, and cutting out fatty foods. I was 52 in 2016, lost 25 pounds and improved my numbers enough that my doctor was able to reduce the medication needed to control my blood pressure and cholesterol.

I encourage all women to take charge of their risk factors and ask medical providers what they can do in addition to medication to improve their health. I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and knew I was overweight, but I didn’t stop to think about what it really meant.

I see my stroke as a stroke of good luck because I was able to make changes before it was too late. There are people who don’t have that choice. Don’t let it be too late for you, work with your health care provider to “Know Your Numbers”, which include cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and body mass index.

Also, learn your family history so you can know your heart disease risks factors. In addition to volunteering with the Chinese Community Cardiac Council, I also support the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association efforts to promote American Stroke Month activities. I also enjoy helping to raise awareness by sharing my story on behalf of Go Red For Women in the local community.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women in recognition of National Wear Red Day (Feb. 3, 2017). The aim is to raise awareness that heart disease isn’t just a man’s disease, and 1 in 3 women died of cardiovascular disease. Eighty percent of cardiac and stroke events can be prevented with education and lifestyle changes. To read all the stories in the series, visit http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/heart-disease/. To follow the conversation on Twitter — and share a picture of yourself wearing red — find the hashtag #GoRedWearRed.

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