Have you or someone you love suffered from heart disease or stroke? As these women know, it takes a combination of courage, inspiration and expert advice to bounce back from severe illness.
Let their stories inspire you as you learn the many different sources of strength they’ve drawn on, as mothers, daughters, spouses and members of diverse communities all across America
Ce Ce Mason: Suffered a heart attack at age 31
Ce Ce Mason is beautiful, full of life and the picture of health. A mother of two young daughters, she spends her days as a successful wedding and event planner at Weddings and the City, a company she co-owns.
Looking at her, you wouldn’t believe that just two weeks after celebrating her 31st birthday, Ce Ce experienced symptoms of a heart attack that could have ended her young life.
On March 23, 2005, Ce Ce and her business partner Kristin were having a weekly meeting to talk about business and upcoming events. Ce Ce mentioned a couple of times that her chest hurt, but just thought she was stressed out. Later that day as symptoms progressed, the possibility that she may be having a heart attack entered her mind—but she couldn’t imagine that was the case. She was healthy and too young to have a heart attack.
Or so she thought.
Soon after as she was driving, one of her arms began to tingle and she felt a bit disoriented. She went to an urgent care clinic, where doctors couldn’t confirm what was wrong but thought it had to do with her heart. They called for an ambulance immediately.
Once Ce Ce arrived at the hospital, blood work confirmed that she was indeed having a heart attack. Apparently, she was born with a heart defect that had so far gone undiagnosed.
Thankfully she paid attention to her symptoms and sought medical attention, which reduced the potential damage to her heart. If she had waited even a day to seek medical help, it could have proved fatal.
Ce Ce spent only three days in the hospital, and was instructed by her doctor to reduce her stress level, eat a healthy diet and exercise more. She immediately enrolled in a cardiac fitness program, determined to prevent another heart attack.
Since being diagnosed with heart disease, Ce Ce has spent a lot of time researching and hopes to help others understand its magnitude and real-world impact by sharing her story.
Eliz Greene: Suffered a heart attack during pregnancy at 35
I was seven months pregnant with twins when I had a heart attack. Some people might think I was unlucky that day—but I’m thankful for the events that transpired.
At 35, it had not been an easy pregnancy. I’d been in the hospital for a month on bed rest for pre-term labor and had heartburn throughout my pregnancy. When I started to have chest pain on that fateful morning, it seemed par for the course.
But things took a rapid turn for the worse…
My obstetrician just happened to be at the nurses’ station and was at my side when I had a cardiac arrest. I was without a pulse for 10 minutes, but received oxygen and CPR immediately. The cardiologist arrived moments after my arrest and shocked my heart back into rhythm.
After I was stabilized, the doctors decided my best chance of survival was to have a C-section followed by a bypass. I was assured the babies were going to be fine, but the doctors were not too sure about me. They were confident I would not survive a traditional bypass because it required my blood be thinned to such an extent that I could bleed out from the C-section.
Fortunately, my surgeon was a pioneer of the beating heart bypass. By using a special instrument to stabilize small sections of my heart, he could work on my heart without it ever stopping. Moments after our girls were delivered, my heart surgery began.
When I came out of surgery, someone told me I had twin girls. We didn’t know the sex of the babies beforehand, and, until Clay showed me pictures of the girls, I didn’t know if it was true or if I’d dreamed it.
Miraculously, my daughters were totally unaffected by the events of the day of their birth. They have grown up to be beautiful, healthy and energetic. And I’m proud to be a healthy and fully recovered full-time mom and to share my story as a regional spokesperson for the American Heart Association and as a motivational speaker. It’s important to for me to be a role model for good heart health for my daughters.
Jackie Wilson: Needlessly Suffered in Silence
As women…wives, mothers, daughters…we often suffer in silence. Being caretakers by nature, we don’t want to worry our loved ones or draw attention to ourselves. Well, I’m here to tell you that silence almost killed me.
More than 20 years ago, I was diagnosed with something called Idiopathic Hypotrophic Subaortic Stenosis. To put it simply, I had an enlarged heart.
I was treated successfully with medication for about 16 years. Until one day at work I felt dizzy and started slurring my words. A co-worker asked if I was OK but I just shrugged it off and said I would be fine.
About six weeks later, I had a second episode and finally went to see a neurologist. While waiting in the exam room, I read pamphlets on the symptoms of a stroke. The doctor walked in to give me my prognosis and I held up one of the pamphlets, “It’s a stroke isn’t it?” The months of denial and the fear of the outcome all came rushing to a head.
When I broke the news to my daughters later that night, they were afraid for me — and angry that I’d kept everything to myself. I should have known better given our family’s history of heart disease: my grandparents, my parents and my nephew all died from heart disease.
I finally wised up and started taking control of my heart health. At a Go Red For Women luncheon earlier this year, I went for a stroke screening that showed I had 90% blockage in my right artery. This time, I immediately went for more testing and my surgery was scheduled for the following day. Without that screening, I could have died.
Today, a toy ambulance sits on my desk to remind me, and those around me, to call 911 should I have a heart attack or another stroke. We all need to speak up: talk about your family medical history with loved ones, don’t keep health secrets from your family, and don’t avoid going to the doctor because you might be embarrassed if there is nothing wrong.
Heart disease is known as a silent killer. But sometimes it’s us, and not the disease, who are guilty of the silence.
Jennifer Mele: Discovered “heartburn” can be a symptom of heart disease at 35
Everyone gets heartburn from time to time. Eating a big bowl of pasta or going to bed too soon after dinner can cause that uncomfortable burning feeling in your chest. But how do you know if it’s something much more serious?
In October 2005, after putting my two toddlers to bed, I had what I thought was a really bad case of heartburn. I’ve had it from time to time but this time was different. Not only was I having the burning sensation, but I had pain spreading down my arms and across my back.
The symptoms eventually went away. I just stopped thinking about it. Why would I think anything was wrong? Heart attacks happened to older people with bad diets, not 35-year old marathon runners with low cholesterol levels.
Over time, the pain continued and I started to get a rapid heartbeat, as well as some numbness and tingling in my arm. When I went to see my primary care doctor, a test showed a “significant abnormality.” I was sent to a cardiologist the next day.
To my shock, a cardiac catheterization showed that I’d had a heart attack. The doctors believed a heart spasm caused a rupture of cholesterol plaque. They immediately gave me some medicine that opened up the blocked artery. In addition to that, I was prescribed some serious rest and had to take it easy for several weeks.
I feel fortunate to have caught the problem so early. I was scheduled to do a 20-mile run with my running group the next day — which could have led to a much worse outcome. A damaged heart can only take so much.
Today, I have regular checkups with my cardiologist and take prescription medications for preventative measures. My heart looks great and I have gradually returned to running four to seven miles a day, about five times a week.
Needless to say, I am thankful for the medical care that helped identify and address the problem. After going through this ordeal, my family’s support for the American Heart Association is stronger than ever. And I’ll never take my heart health for granted again.
Joann Hofer: Heart Attack at 36 on a “perfect” Sunday afternoon.
It was a perfect Sunday afternoon and Joann was having a picnic lunch with her family – which included her six-day-old baby and five-year-old son. She suddenly felt a sharp pain on her back and her arms went numb.
Joann could barely hold on to the baby, and thought that she may have strained a muscle breast feeding. Her husband rushed her out of the park while she called her ob-gyn, who told her to take a pain killer and rest. But when the pain still wouldn’t go away, she went to the emergency room where she learned that the doctor on call thought it was her lungs.
It was the intervention of a doctor at a partner hospital that saved her life. She was transferred to a heart hospital where she had a catheterization and heart pump in order to aid her through the night. The next day she entered the blunt reality that she needed a heart transplant. Joann had suffered severe damage to her heart due to sudden dissection of the left anterior descending coronary artery (LAD). She had been in perfect health the day before.
Eight months later her doctor determined she had heart disease and heart failure and needed a defibrillator. Luckily, she was taken off the transplant list.
Now Joann feels safer with the device in her chest. It serves as a constant reminder of how lucky she is to still watch her sons grow up. Joann believes that every woman needs to know the symptoms of a heart attack because it can strike even when one is healthy.
It is through her involvement with partners of the Go Red cause, which include associations and organizations such as the American Heart Association and Women Heart, that Joann finds the empowerment she didn’t feel that fateful day. Now through her experience, she can help other women get educated and become the most faithful advocates of their own hearts.
Megan Silvia: Three Heart Surgeries by Age 37
I’ve had three heart surgeries, I have two sons and my heart contains one cow valve. And I’m only 37. My story has many numbers.
I was born with aortic stenosis, a heart defect in which the aortic valve does not form properly.
A normal valve has three “cusps,” but mine only had two. My condition was discovered when I was three, I underwent a cardiac catheterization at age five — and then I showed no symptoms and had no problems for the next eight years.
One day when I was 13, I was playing with friends on a Greenwich beach when my heart began racing and I couldn’t see a thing. After being rushed for treatment, my doctors discovered that my aortic valve was nearly closed.
Within a month, doctors performed a procedure called a valvuloplasty to open up my failing aortic valve. After a smooth recovery, I headed back to school.
Seven years later, my mom noticed I had been coughing a lot. Even though I didn’t notice any symptoms, my doctors discovered severe leaking and thickening in my valve. During my college’s Christmas break, I had a second valvuloplasty. By the time school started again, I was healthy enough to return.
More than eight years passed before I needed a third surgery — this time to replace my aortic valve with a mechanical valve. This would mean I had to take blood thinners that could possibly cause complications if I became pregnant. At the time, I was engaged and I wanted to start a family.
After much research, I decided to have a bovine valve (which comes from a cow!) that would allow me to have a normal pregnancy. The third surgery was a success.
In next few years, my husband David and I became the proud parents of Trevor and Cole. Luckily, my heart condition caused no complications during either pregnancy. Eventually, I may need to have a fourth open-heart procedure…which I hope will be the final number in my story.
Melissa Oliver: Blocked arteries led to a heart attack at 35
Melissa Oliver never thought she would have heart problems. At 35-years-old, the bank vice president and mother of a toddler was an active, healthy woman.
But in 2004, she felt a painful pressure in the middle of her chest. She popped some Rolaids in order to get through a 20-minute conference call in her office. After the call ended and the pain had subsided, she called her doctor who thought she was having an anxiety attack. He referred her for a cardiac stress test to ease her mind.
Nine days later she went in for the EKG which revealed she had had a heart attack. The tip of one of her arteries was partially blocked, the result of a congenital heart defect aggravated by high blood pressure that may have dated back to her pregnancy when she’d had the hypertensive disorder preeclampsia. Her cardiologist said she was headed for another attack, this one much worse than the first.
Oliver says. “I thought I was going for my morning workout and then would be back at the office as usual. Instead, I ended up in the hospital that night and in surgery the next day.”
She spent most of 2004 in and out of the hospital. Before the year was over, she would have six stents in her LAD. She now wants women to know that heart disease can happen to anyone at anytime in their life. Melissa encourages women to always listen and respond to their bodies.
Nenette Madla: Seemed so healthy at 32
As I lay in a hospital bed, weak in the aftermath of a heart attack, I wondered how this could happen to a non-smoking 32-year old woman with healthy cholesterol levels and no high blood pressure or diabetes.
The answer is heart disease does not discriminate. This silent killer can strike anyone at any time.
It all started when I began feeling dizzy and nauseated at work. I thought I was coming down with a stomach virus. Walking out of my office, I felt an excruciating pain in the center of my chest that radiated to my neck.
“Am I having a heart attack?” I panicked. My heart raced as I tried to remain calm. I could barely move as the pain became severe with each step. Finally, a co-worker came to my side and got me to the Urgent Care Center, where I was immediately given nitroglycerin. The next day a cardiac catheterization indicated I’d had a recent heart attack due to a blockage in one of my arteries.
I’ll never be cured of heart disease, but I can control its progression. For the rest of my life, I will be on medications that require regular visits with my cardiologist. Daily exercise and maintaining a good healthy diet are paramount.
Making lifestyle changes was difficult at first — and I know it wasn’t easy for my teenage daughter Crystal to adjust her eating habits with mine. But I want to watch her get married and have children of her own one day, and I want to grow old with my husband Frank. I’m fortunate to have them by my side.
It’s been two years since my heart attack. A combination of exercise, staying on my meds and maintaining a healthy diet has helped me reduce a second blockage in my heart by 50%.
To stay strong, I’ve joined the American Heart Association in the fight against heart disease and stroke. By sharing my experience, I hope to encourage women to take charge of their own heart by living a healthy lifestyle.
Tonya Henderson-Meyer: Finding support after major heart surgery
Tonya loves to run. The dynamic pediatrician and mother of four is an avid marathoner and recently completed the 2007 Disneyworld Marathon. But just a couple of years ago, she was almost forced to hang up her running shoes.
Shortly after completing the San Diego half-marathon in January 2005, Tonya was diagnosed with a serious heart problem. One of her heart valves was not opening properly and her aorta (the blood vessel that sends blood out from the heart) was severely dilated.
She needed major surgery to repair these problems, but the best treatment and timing were not clear. Determined to run again, Tonya researched her condition and treatment options with the help of her cardiologist and some very good surgeons.
Collectively, they decided her best option was to have open-heart surgery. After the surgery in August 2005, some bleeding complications sent her rushing back to the operating room. Despite this setback, Tonya recovered armed with the same strength and determination that got her across the finish line so many times before.
To celebrate Tonya’s amazing spirit and rapid return to health after surgery, Tonya’s friends and family formed “Team T.” The team’s objectives are to help Tonya overcome heart disease and encourage others to do the same.
Team T also aims to support the American Heart Association by increasing awareness of heart disease and raising funds through races such as the Disneyworld Marathon earlier this year.
Today, Tonya has a mechanical valve and has to take a blood thinner to prevent blood clots from forming on her valve. But aside from having to take this medicine, she is back to normal and back to running — each day growing stronger with the full support of Team T.