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Life is Why

In 2004, the American Heart Association (AHA) faced a challenge. Cardiovascular disease claimed the lives of nearly 500,000 American women each year, yet women and medical professionals were not paying attention. In fact, many even dismissed it as an older man’s disease. There were many instances where women, especially younger women, were turned away from emergency departments because the staff believed they were too young to be experiencing the effects of heart disease or their symptoms didn’t fit the classic signs of heart disease. Still others were often thought of as too young to experience the symptoms of a stroke.

To dispel the myths and raise awareness of heart disease and stroke as the No. 1 and No. 5 killers of women, the American Heart Association created GO RED FOR WOMEN, a program designed to empower women to take charge of their heart health.


Historically, men have been the subjects of the research done to understand heart disease and stroke, which has been the basis for treatment guidelines and programs. This led to an oversimplified, distorted view of heart disease and risk, which has worked to the detriment of women. Because women have been largely ignored as a specific group, their awareness of their risk of this often-preventable disease has suffered. Only 55 percent of women realize heart disease is their No. 1 killer and less than half know what are considered healthy levels for cardiovascular risk factors like blood pressure and cholesterol. Women also spend a lot of time taking care of others in a household and not prioritizing their own health concerns. The Go Red For Women movement works to make sure women know they are at risk
so they can take action to protect their health.

Go Red For Women encourages awareness around the connection between women, heart disease, and stroke in order to save more lives. The movement harnesses the energy, passion and power women have to band together in pursuit of collectively wiping out heart disease. It challenges them take action to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, for themselves and the generations to come. The heart and the brain are complicated organs; heart disease and stroke can and will take on many forms. Recently we asked many of the Southwest Michigan heroes who inspire us if they would gather for a photo in red and share their experiences.

Congenital heart defects are structural problems with the heart present at birth. They result when a mishap occurs during heart development soon after conception and often before the mother is aware that she is pregnant. Defects range in severity from simple problems, such as “holes” between chambers of the heart, to very severe malformations, such as complete absence of one or more chambers or valves. Having a congenital heart defect can also increase your risk of developing certain medical conditions.

Peyton’s parents learned that Peyton had two congenital heart defects when she was only 24 hours old; pulmonary stenosis, a thickened heart valve, and a hole in her heart. “Her body is adapting on its own,” said her mother Brooke. “Hopefully if surgery is needed it will be less invasive and done with a balloon. Although we lived with the fear of the unknown in the first year, we know that new techniques are available to Peyton if needed. It won’t be a major surgery that would have been needed even 10 years ago.”

Sometimes congenital issues don’t make themselves known until adulthood. When Melissa Johnson was 37 she fainted at work and learned that she had been born with a defective heart valve. She delayed surgery at first, but later found she was breathless and her heart was racing even after walking one flight of stairs. Doctors replaced her valve, but it didn’t solve her issue and she underwent a second valve replacement in 2016. Melissa shares her story often and has even lobbied on behalf of the American Heart Association for CPR in Schools and for research funding at a national level.


Ten years ago, Carol was in physical therapy while recovering from a broken scapula. Breathing became a little harder and she wondered if she might be coming down with pneumonia. Later, once home, she noticed that her chest discomfort was getting stronger. Her husband took her to her regular doctor where they did an EKG and a chest X-ray, and with results that alarmed the staff. At the hospital she met a cardiologist who determined that she needed surgery that night. At 10 p.m. they did a quadruple bypass. The surgery staff said they felt that her case was so urgent that she might not have lived if she had waited until morning before seeking help.


In 2010, upon turning 40 years old, Carrie joined a gym and began running. After two years she was hooked. She lost 20 pounds and was running about 15 miles a week. In December, 2013, a MRI showed a stress fracture in her leg. To avoid surgery, she was told to keep weight off the leg and use crutches for 30 days.

“One night I fell asleep on the couch for hours. I thought was coming down with the flu,” she said. It turns out, she had two blood clots which moved to both lungs and caused a double pulmonary embolism. Because of a lack of oxygen to her heart, she went into cardiac arrest the next morning. It took several Kalamazoo Public Safety officers and paramedics to save her life. A few days later in the hospital, she suffered two strokes. They left her with impaired vision and limited use of her left hand. A hematologist/oncologist said he’d seen something similar, and looked for cancer in her uterus. It turns out that the issues were related. A hysterectomy revealed there was no cancer. Finally, good news! Her vision improved every day, her headaches ceased and she is an avid runner once again.

“I have to think – a hip fracture, a double pulmonary embolism, a cardiac arrest, two strokes, and a hysterectomy in 30 days – you can’t make that up.” said Carrie. Carrie shared her story at the 2015 Kalamazoo Go Red For Women Luncheon.

To look at her, you would never think that this vibrant woman in her thirties is dealing with serious health issues. And yet, she’s survived a stroke & open-heart surgery.

“It started out as a back injury. The week prior I’d hurt my back but it led to a staph infection that attacked parts of my body internally,” said Georgia. “One morning I woke up and couldn’t see straight. My husband immediately took me to the hospital. They ran some tests and determined that I had a septic infection and it had attacked my heart. Some of the infection had gone into my vascular system and caused the stroke.” She was in a medically-induced coma for about a week. During open-heart surgery, surgeons were able to place a band and a ring around her tricuspid valve, healing the damage and giving her hope of a normal life.

“My desire is that more people learn the signs and symptoms of a stroke and know to treat it like an emergency. If Jody hadn’t taken me in right away and I’d waited another day, they say I might not have survived this,” said Georgia.


Eleanor was used to having her heart checked and a recent EKG had revealed nothing out of the ordinary. While visiting a relative in the hospital, she read a brochure about heart attacks and she realized she was feeling tightness and discomfort in her chest.

“There was tightness in my throat, too,” she said. “I noticed it just after I had lunch, so I thought it might be indigestion. It never occurred to me that it could be a heart condition.” A
few days later while going up the stairs in her home, she felt the pain return, with more intensity. This time she called 911. After receiving two stents, she has made a great recovery. “I realized that, along with my son, other members in my family had heart issues. On my mother’s side, several relatives had passed away. My mother had had heart palpitations, and died en route to the hospital. My sister is in remission from a heart condition. There was definitely a genetic predisposition.”

Haleigh is a high school student who hasn’t yet had a cardiac event, but she discovered that she had high cholesterol during a routine blood test. Haleigh controls her cholesterol by eating right, through medication and by living a healthy lifestyle. “Research and education being done right now by the American Heart Association means that there will continue to be new treatments and answers for me,” said Haleigh. In the American Heart Association’s 2017 Statistical update, about 20% of children have less than ideal cholesterol.


Maria was getting her three young children ready for school when she developed a very rapid heart rate. It brought her to her knees and it was difficult to stand up. She was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation or afib, and began taking medication to control her symptoms. In July 2015, Maria began experiencing different symptoms. “It was a sharp pain that I’d never experienced, but I wouldn’t have suspected heart disease if I didn’t know that I had some afib,” said Maria. She was having a heart attack this time. “I’m the last person you would suspect as having heart disease since I worked out and did everything in moderation.”

Complete shock. Those are the words that Carrie uses to describe how she felt when she learned that she had suffered a heart attack. She had been explaining away her symptoms as they grew stronger. The initial one was pressure while she slept, but she would roll over and it would go away. And even after the pressure got stronger during dinner, she changed her shirt and her
husband tidied up the kitchen before they drove to the hospital. She was young and healthy. There was little reason to suspect that she was having a heart attack. The medical team ran several tests and kept her overnight. By morning they determined that she had had a heart attack, but didn’t understand why.

That answer would come months later as she sought out other opinions. While undergoing tests they learned that she had a dangerous issue called sudden coronary arterial dissection, or SCAD. It’s a condition that causes sudden tears in an artery & death can come rapidly thereafter. Carrie found support after locating two other women with the same condition and began volunteering with a group called WomenHeart and the American Heart Association. Since then, she’s experienced another heart attack, a bypass, sudden cardiac arrest and an internal defibrillator. Her journey has been complicated and she wants others to know that the change in her lifestyle is something that could happen to any woman. By telling her story and educating others to things like SCAD, Carrie hopes that she can help others.


Bonita had a double bypass at age 46. For at least 18 months prior to the bypass, she had gone into various places to have chest pain checked out. Sometimes the pain was so bad it had brought her to her knees, yet her lab numbers were okay. She had no family history in her immediate family and the medical community wasn’t yet in tune with women and their sometimes unique cardiac symptoms. Each time she was sent home. Then, after lunching with a friend who commented about how she didn’t look well, Bonita persisted with her medical team. This time the tests revealed that she had two main arteries blocked. At this point there was too much damage to insert stents and they performed the bypass surgery.

“If I would have had an actual heart attack, my arteries were in such bad condition that it would have killed me,” said Bonita. She is very happy that the medical views of women and heart disease have evolved so that others might have better initial outcomes.


When she became pregnant for the second time, Elise called her mother. “I remember that I was excited when she first called me after a doctor’s appointment and said that the babies were fine,” said her mother, Michele. “I replied with the question ‘babies?’ as in two and she said ‘Keep going!’ Who knew there would be triplets?” But after the birth of the babies, Elise passed out and couldn’t maintain her blood pressure level. Although she was eventually released, she grew weaker and returned to the hospital. Sixty-four percent of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease had no previous symptoms. Elise had developed pregnancy-induced cardiomyopathy. Her heart was unable to keep producing the amount of blood that Elise needed and they placed her on the transplant list in 2012 and she received her heart several months later. Elise is now able to fully parent her four daughters. “I have a future as a wife, mother, daughter and friend,” she said.


  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing or blurred vision in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

You should never wait more than five minutes to dial 9-1-1 if you experience any of the signs above. Remember, you could be having a stroke even if you’re not experiencing all of the symptoms. And remember to check the time. The responding emergency medical technician or ER nurse at the hospital will need to know when the first symptom occurred.

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