Profiles in Heart: Survivors Share Their Cardiac Health Stories
According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular diseases claim the life of a woman about every 80 seconds.
Connie Jones, Tracy Hover and Cynthia Essex were spared. The Michigan women have different life and heart stories, but they share a passion for advocacy. As American Heart Association ambassadors, all three have a desire to prevent more women from becoming part of the staggering statistic that one in three women will die from a cardiovascular disease.
Read their inspiring stories and find out how you can support the American Heart Association’s mission to beat heart disease and stroke at heart.org.
“God put me on this earth and I needed to give something back.”
At 400 pounds, Connie Jones knew she needed to make some lifestyle changes.
The Grand Rapids woman started small, walking halfway around the block. Building on her initial efforts, Jones turned her walking habit and new approach to eating into a 70-pound weight loss.
“I just got tired of being sick and tired,” she said.
It seemed especially cruel that after putting her health on the right path, Jones would suffer a major stroke in 2007 at the age of 48.
“It was very scary,” she said.
She underwent speech, physical and occupational therapy to regain her ability to talk and move fully.
Two more minor strokes followed in 2009 and 2014. Despite the setbacks, she went on to lose a total of 257 pounds. After losing the first 110 pounds on her own, gastric bypass surgery helped her settle into a healthy weight.
She eventually found out that a hole in her heart was linked to the strokes. Jones had the first of two surgeries on Jan. 4 of this year and is scheduled for the remaining operation on Feb. 21 to close the hole. Doing that will decrease her risk of having another stroke from an 80-90 percent probability to about a five percent chance.
Her outlook on life leads her to share her story in the hope that someone else will be moved to take control of their own health. She first teamed up with the American Heart Association in 2009 when she was a recipient of the organization’s Lifestyle Change Award.
Jones considers the West Michigan chapter family and her work as an advocate and volunteer is part of her personal mission. She’s looking forward to her 60th birthday this June and said her experiences make her thankful for every day she has on earth.
“Every day is a birthday,” she said.
“What’s my purpose? Why didn’t I just have a massive stroke or worse? It has caused me to reflect on that.”
As someone in good health who ate well and exercised regularly, Tracy Hover initially ignored her chest pains, which she experienced in 2015.
She describes feeling worn out, but the pain went away and she eventually resumed normal activity, even going for a jog with no pain or shortness of breath.
Still, as someone who works in health care, she decided she shouldn’t let it go. An EKG performed by a co-worker at the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine showed a suspected heart attack. The results of a subsequent stress test also came back as abnormal.
With a family history filled with cardiac complications, Hover jumped at an opportunity to take part in a research study that would give her access to expanded blood work and hopefully give her more answers. A CAT scan of her heart turned up a left atrial myxoma, a noncancerous tumor, which in her case ended up being the size of a golf ball.
The condition put her at a 40 percent higher risk for stroke and preparations for open heart surgery were quickly made.
Ten months later, she was completing the Fifth Third River Bank Run 5K. Every six months she sees her cardiologist for an ultrasound to make sure the tumor isn’t growing back and so far, she hasn’t had any other problems.
Now 53, Hover understands how lucky she was to not suffer a stroke before finding the tumor. She credits the role that research played in helping to prevent a worse outcome. As a clinical research coordinator, it’s her life’s work and it’s not lost on her that it could have saved her life.
Her advice to other women who suspect that something might be off with their heart health is to go and get it checked out. Even if it turns out not to be the case, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
“I think just being aware of risk factors and really educating yourself and paying attention and being your own advocate – if you sense something is going on, be aggressive about making appointments with your doctor and making sure they know your family history,” she said.
“Because I can make a difference, I choose to.”
Cynthia Essex just didn’t feel right one Sunday morning in 2013. Despite her exhaustion, the Saginaw mother of eight dragged herself to church, as was her usual routine.
About an hour into the service, she asked her husband to get the car. Instead of driving home, however, Essex found herself in the back of an ambulance after collapsing on the steps outside.
After 24 hours in the hospital, it was determined that an enlarged heart was blocking her blood flow, which caused the episode, and she was officially diagnosed with congestive heart failure. It came as a shock to Essex.
“I’d taken pretty good care of myself. As a mother of eight, sitting down wasn’t really a thing,” she joked.
Now 48, Essex has turned her experience into a life filled with purpose to inspire others. She started a blog, sharing her motivational take on life and released a book last year titled Learning to Stand Tall in the Face of Life’s Adversities.
As an American Heart Association ambassador, Essex coaches the women in her office at Saginaw Valley State University where she works as an administrative secretary to move more and watch their salt intake, something she’s decreased substantially in the last five years after learning more about sodium’s negative affect on heart health.
Her eight children and husband of 30 years have stepped up for her when she needs to take it easy, but Essex is grateful to have more time as “head cheerleader” of the family.
While some people approach a diagnosis involving their heart as a death sentence, Essex chooses to do everything she can with however much time she has.
“I never thought of it like that. I have so much to live for,” she said.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan is proud to sponsor American Heart Association Go Red for Women luncheons in Detroit on Friday, Feb. 16 and Grand Rapids on Wednesday, Feb. 21. A Saginaw event took place on Friday, Feb. 2 and Kalamazoo’s luncheon will take place on Friday, Feb. 9.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
- Getting Ahead: Healthy Heart Practices for the New Year
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- How the American Heart Association Works to Improve Michiganders’ Cardiovascular Health
Photo credit (feature image): meghan dougherty
All other images courtesy photos