Heart disease is the number-one killer of all women, but it's particularly dangerous for African-American women, who have a higher risk than those who are white or Hispanic. According to the American Heart Association, however, only 36% of black women know that heart disease is their greatest risk and only about 50% are aware of the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. What's more, emotional factors like anxiety and stress often play a big role in the severity of heart disease in black women, according to Michelle Albert, MD, professor of medicine in the cardiology division at the University of California, San Francisco. The good news: "Once they become aware of their risk, black women tend to take a proactive role in changing their habits and educating others," says Holly S. Andersen, MD, medical advisor to the Women's Heart Alliance. Here, heart-health champions tell their stories so more women can lead better, happier lives.
Jarretta Utley, 46, Nashville, TN
I've been overweight and had high blood pressure since my 20s. I loved fast food—fries, chips and soda were my weaknesses. When I was in graduate school, I got pregnant and my weight peaked at 250 pounds. My daughter, Jillian, was born in 2004, and although I was initially motivated and lost 30 pounds, what followed was a really stressful time. I was stretched financially and took a year off from school. I couldn't afford to refill my blood pressure medication, so I unfortunately had to stop taking it.
At age 35, in 2006, I had a heart attack on a hot summer night as I was reading Jillian a bedtime story. I remember sitting at the kitchen table sweating, with a radiating pain in my chest. My mother was at my house and she thought I had heartburn, so she gave me a soda. I wasn't sure what was wrong, but the pain was so bad I knew I needed to go to the hospital. As I got ready to leave, my mom said I suddenly looked pale, so she called 911. I was in the hospital for two weeks and had a procedure to clear my 100% blocked coronary artery. Having a heart attack changes you, sometimes for the better. Now, I involve my daughter in heart-healthier habits. We play Wii and walk and ride our bikes together. We eat baked and broiled chicken and fish as well as salads—and avoid the candy and cookie aisle at the supermarket. And I never skip my blood pressure medication. I'm healthier than I've ever been.
I realized that I was able to live so that I can tell my story and help others—and that gives me strength. I cofounded the WomenHeart Nashville support group to connect women who are dealing with heart disease. This network has helped me grow in my knowledge and understanding of heart issues, plus it uplifts me. And no matter what, I have my daughter to live for and I'm thankful every day that I'm here.
Bernetta Epps, 45, Baltimore
Hypertension and heart disease run in my family, yet I never worried about a stroke. I didn't think it could happen to me.
After a 20-year career in childcare, I had recently begun teaching CPR to daycare providers. On my way to a class held at my aunt's house in August 2015, I started slurring my speech, according to my niece, who was with me. When I got out of the car, I couldn't walk straight. My aunt said, "I think you're having a stroke," and called 911. The emergency operator asked if I could stick out my tongue, smile and raise my arms. I could, so I refused the ambulance. That was a big mistake. Less than 10 minutes later, my entire right side was numb; I couldn't move. My aunt dialed 911 again and an ambulance took me to the hospital, where I stayed for seven weeks and learned how to walk and talk again.
Now, I'm a huge cheerleader for prioritizing your health, because if I had gone for my annual checkup, I would have known my blood pressure was really high. (It was 200 over 100 the day of the stroke but I had no idea.) And two weeks earlier, I had what I thought was a bad migraine but I brushed it off. In hindsight, it was a warning. At the hospital, my blood work indicated that I'd previously had a small stroke, probably in my sleep. So when I teach CPR today, I'm an advocate for taking any out-of-the-ordinary symptoms seriously. My motto is, when in doubt, get it checked out.
Yvonne Cowan, 60, Queens, NY
I don't have a history of heart disease, high cholesterol or hypertension, but I still almost died from heart issues.
I'm a registered nurse, and in October 2014, I was working at the hospital when I felt a burning in my chest. I drank a glass of milk to neutralize what I thought was heartburn. As the pain became more intense, a hospital clerk saw me rubbing my chest and told me to go to the ER. I suddenly felt short of breath, and the next thing I knew, I was on a stretcher and in excruciating pain. It felt like I had a torch inside me.
I was given an EKG and a blood test. Both tests were normal, and my pain continued off and on, so the doctor thought it was indigestion. He planned to discharge me, but I was still uncomfortable, so we decided to wait a few hours for the "heartburn" to pass. Eventually, a nurse gave me nitroglycerin to help with the chest discomfort, but it caused my heart rate to drop so low that they decided to keep me for further testing. I stayed overnight for observation, and they repeated the blood work, which indicated that I had experienced a heart attack. The artery that was 80% blocked is called the "widow-maker" and to relieve the obstruction, they placed two stents in it. I thank God every day for His mercy. If I had left the hospital and gone home, I would not have made it. Now I take a blood thinner and baby aspirin, as well as Lipitor. I also walk for an hour daily and no longer eat fried foods.
Two weeks before my heart attack, I felt an intense pain in my chest. At the time, I was working and I opened my arms wide to alleviate the ache and called out to Jesus. The pain subsided, but I realize in retrospect that not getting it checked out was a mistake. Prayer is vitally important to me, but it's still in my best interest to take care of myself. It was my responsibility to notify doctors. Maybe they would have seen something in my blood. It's easy to minimize symptoms, especially if they're vague. However, it's up to you to advocate for your own health.
Commit to visiting your doctor, taking care of your ticker, and spreading the word to friends and family by taking the Women's Heart Alliance's pledge at fighttheladykiller.org.
It's important for more black women to get involved in clinical research. Why? "Just as women are different from men, all women are not alike," says Janine Clayton, MD, director of the Office of Research on Women's Health at the National Institutes of Health. "Doctors decide which drugs to use based on evidence that is obtained through research. If studies don't involve African-American women, researchers can't be sure that the results apply to them." Bottom line: The more women in clinical trials, the more information experts have to create effective prevention and lifesaving treatment plans. Visit clinicaltrials.gov to search for trials recruiting women of color and join one.
This story originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Landcruisers.