Scarred and battle tested from heart disease, but still fighting
By Rhonda E. Monroe (Incoming Board Chair-elect, WomenHeart)
WomenHeart (the first and leading voice for the 48 million American women living with or at risk of heart disease) story begins in February of 1999, when three women, united by heart disease, formed an organization that was destined to become a lifeline for women across this nation. And at the same time, in February of 1999, a young mother in Charlotte, N.C. suffered a stroke while she was pregnant with her second child. Fortunately, she suffered no long-term deficits, but was horrified by her temporary left side paralysis.
Five years later, this size six, 36-year-old woman would suffer the first of three heart attacks just five days after giving birth to her third child. It was May of 2004. She was misdiagnosed for an entire week despite an EKG showing an acute myocardial infarction. She sought treatment six of seven days before someone finally listened.
On that sixth night, she laid on her bed with one foot on the ground for the entire night, afraid to relinquish her physical attachment to earth, because she felt her body shutting down. She prayed. And she vowed that if she lived, she would raise her voice so that no other woman suffered her fate.
After this week-long heart attack, she returned to the emergency room. She was rushed by ambulance to another hospital and taken to emergency bypass surgery. She had five coronary artery dissections, and she underwent an emergency quadruple bypass. Her heart was so remarkable that the surgeon literally held it in his hand and had someone capture a photograph.
Eight months later, that same young mother learned that her bypass grafts had shut down. Her rejection fraction was only 21 percent. She was advised to call a family meeting, get her affairs in order. Her prognosis was grim.
It was then that I became intimately acquainted with her. I marveled at her strength and resolve as we walked this journey together. She became a force of nature, moving heaven and earth in her fight for life. She underwent a repeat bypass, had part of her heart cut off, 15 laser holes drilled in her heart, a pericardial window cut in the sac around her heart, three defibrillator implants, stents, angioplasty, and then some.
She’s flatlined four times, and suffered from congestive heart failure. She’s experienced more heart issues than generations of a family. But I am happy to share with you that she is still with us. This is my story, and WomenHeart has been a lifeline for me.
I became a WomenHeart Champion in 2007 and it changed my life. The sense of sisterhood and friendship are truly priceless. WomenHeart is the nation’s only patient-centered organization solely dedicated to advancing women’s heart health through education, advocacy and patient support. At its core are WomenHeart Champions—women living with heart disease—who are trained to be community educators, support network leaders and advocates for women’s heart health in the communities in which they live.
WomenHeart is a friend to many WomenHeart Champions like me. Today, I speak to audiences of women living with heart disease and medical professionals. I’m a little scarred and battle tested, I am no longer 36, I am no longer a size six, but I am still here. And I am determined more than ever now, to keep the vow that I made 14 years ago in May of 2004, so that not another woman suffers my fate. I, along with WomenHeart, am fighting for every heart with the same tenacity and vigor that saved my own.
As an African American woman, I know that this disease impacts women differently than men, especially minority women. Heart disease claims the lives of nearly 48,000 African American and 21,000 Hispanic women annually. Which is why I am asking other women of color who are heart disease survivors to join the fight and become a WomenHeart Champion at the 2018 WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium. It’s the nation’s only free volunteer program that trains women with heart disease to be community educators and support network coordinators in their communities. They are real women living with heart disease, who share their stories and important messages about heart health—all in the mission to save lives. Join me.