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Go RED for Women: How Heart Disease has Impacted My Life

Posted Feb 07 2014 6:46pm
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Today, I am wearing red.  I am wearing red in honor of National Go Red for Women Day , part of The American Heart Association’s February Heart Month.   I am wearing red in memory of my grandparents who passed away when I was younger due to complications of coronary heart disease.  I am wearing red specifically, to bring attention to the statistic that Heart Disease is the #1 killer of women each year—greater than all forms of cancer combined at a rate of roughly 1 per minute.  I am wearing red so that maybe, one day our children, or our children’s children won’t have to.

I initially set out to write an informative post, filled with lots of research and links to studies about heart disease and the danger it poses to our country, but instead, I decided to do what I do best and that is write from the heart about how heart disease has touched and impacted my life.  I am going to write my emotions and sprinkle in some facts that are important for all of us know to off the top of our heads.

Heart disease is something that I have always taken very seriously—even before I started along my health and wellness journey.   My dad was on high blood pressure medication in his early-30’s so we rarely used salt for fear of what it would do to his BP.  High blood pressure, or hypertension, is the increase of blood flow within your arteries, causing them to stretch beyond their normal, healthy limits.  Hypertension is dangerous since other than taking a blood pressure reading, there are no accompanying symptoms.  According to the AHA, 76.4 Million Americans suffer from this disease. If left untreated, it can lead to numerous other medical complications—including stroke.

Fit Moms & Full Plates: Go Red for Women Day In addition to my father’s history, I can remember as a small child of maybe 6-years old that my paternal grandfather (whom I called Jaju) had something wrong with his heart.  He had a special heart doctor (cardiologist) that he would see and sometimes his heart would hurt (heart attacks).  He was my only surviving grandfather as my maternal grandfather had passed away from lung cancer well before I was born.  My Jaju was my world—I can remember his laugh and his smile—his wonderful large smile.  I can remember his anchor tattoos on his forearms.  His horn-rimmed glasses.  His graying hair at the temples of his head—they all still remain with me.  I cannot remember his voice though—I think I was too small to remember what it sounded like.  We’d often come home from school to find him at our house painting or fixing something like the gate to our backyard.  He used to have very strong cologne.  He had a baby blue car—a Buick I think that he’d take us on “Mystery Rides” in (meaning he had no idea where he was and refused to get directions at the bequest of my grandmother).

I loved him, like most young girls love their grandfathers.  I remember one particular day in late July 1988.  I was playing with my Barbie’s and their swimming pool when Jaju came over the house.  I remember I ran over to him to give him a hug and he told me to get the heck out because I was all wet.  That was the last time I can remember seeing him.  It would have been the last time that I was able to hug him or kiss him—if he had let me.  The next morning I remember my mom waking me and my brother up very, very early and rushing us out of the house because “Jaju is very sick.”    I remember going over my dad’s cousins’ house and meeting my cousin Amanda there.  I can remember thinking it strange that we were at my dad’s cousins’ since we would only go there at Christmas.  We played all day until very late when my parents and Amanda’s parents walked in the door looking very drawn and tired.  My Aunt Nancy and Uncle Bob pulled Amanda into one room, while my brother Matt and I, were pulled into another.  I can’t remember the words but I can remember the pain I felt and the tears stinging my eyes (as they are now as I recall the scene in my mind).  He was gone.  My Jaju was now in Heaven with Jesus.

Fit Moms & Full Plates: Go Red for Women Day He died in Boston on July 31, 1988.  He was on the operating table during a quadruple bypass due to severely clogged arties.   He was 67-years old.  My world was rocked and left empty.  We grieved and then eventually continued on—taking care of my Babci (what we called my grandmother).  My  Babci was also no stranger to heart matters.  She also had a cardiologist, being rushed to the ER numerous times with “minor” heart attacks and TIAs (transient ischemic attacks).    Heart attacks in women often times go undiagnosed initially due to the signs and symptoms being different from the typical chest clenching pains that we often associate with the event.  Women often don’t feel the pressure on the chest but instead will have pain in the jaw or neck and back; they may experience nausea, shortness of breath or even dizziness or lightheadedness.  As those symptoms can be attributed to so many other issues, like a panic attack, it goes without saying why women are potentially more susceptible to the damage caused by not seeking immediate medical attention.  Statistically, women have not been the focus of clinical trials, therefore historically have not been made fully aware that they are not invincible.  Heart disease does not discriminate—it will attack men AND women, as well as the young, not just the old, and it will also affect the fit and “healthy”.

When I look to my grandmother’s numerous TIA’s, or transient ischemic attacks, I also know that women are at greater risk here than men as well.  First off a TIA, is sometimes noted as a mini-stroke, and due to its transient, or temporary nature, doesn’t often leave lasting damage.  However, it should be taken very seriously, as they are often a precursor to a more serious stroke, where the blockage is permanent and not just temporary in nature eventually allowing blood flow to resume.  According to the AHA, more women than men suffer from strokes, and likewise die from strokes and their effects.  A startling statistic is that 1 in 5 women have had a stroke at some point in their lives.  In my grandmother’s case, she tried to do the right thing.  She limited her sodium intake, changed from ground beef to ground turkey, and being without a car or husband to drive her places frequently, would walk wherever she could until such time that it became dangerous for her to do so—yet she didn’t always follow through, and I fear the damage had already been done.

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I have learned in multiple CPR certification classes the signs of stroke should be committed to memory with the acronym FAST or “Face (is to drooping on one side?)” “Arm (does one side seem to be weak?)” “Speech (is it slurred?)” “Time (if yes to the previous then it’s time to call 911)”.

My grandmother, as she entered her 70s, became increasingly more difficult.  She began to suffer from dimensia and Parkinson’s like symptoms, but refused to ever be tested for it as many of those symptoms could also been attributed to her multiple TIAs.  Her health condition had deteriorated significantly over the summer of 2001 to the point that my dad and his sister, my Aunt Nancy, needed to make the decision to have her placed in fulltime care in order to rehab her properly.  I had just graduated from college and was spending the summer in DC working prior to returning to Massachusetts for graduate school.  When I returned home the woman that I saw—the woman who just a couple short months ago who was full of life looked pale, drawn, and diminutive in comparison.  Most days when I’d visit her she had no idea we were there, then one day in particular, the day we that was “the day” she began to say her goodbyes.  As she kissed me and whispered something inaudible in my ear I cried tears knowing that it was likely the last time I’d speak with my grandmother.  My parents brought me back to UMass Amherst that night.  I woke up at 4 in the morning for no good reason and went back to sleep.  I was awoken a couple hours later by a call from my parents telling me Babci had passed away just a few hours earlier.  She was 76.

Both of my grandparents suffered, and died due to complications related to heart disease, and both far too young—especially my grandfather.  Knowing that my dad has been on hypertension medication for most of his adult life frankly frightens me.  Hypertension runs in families, as was evident with my dad and his parent’s medical history.  However, just because something runs in your family does not mean you are doomed to the same fate.  Eating a whole food, nutrient dense diet, regular exercise, stress management, avoiding tobacco, limiting your alcohol consumption, and maintaining a healthy weight are all ways to help avoid heading down the path towards familial hypertension.  That is just part of the reason why following a Paleo/Primal lifestyle is important for my immediate family and I.

FitMomsFullPlates_GoRedForWomen Sometimes I am still that sad 8-year old girl who never hugged her grandfather that one last time, or that 22-year old who was crying tears over her grandmother knowing that she’d never see her again.  I think often how neither of my grandparents lived to see both of my children, for whom their middle names were given.  I think of how it wasn’t fair that they left me so young.  How it isn’t fair that my children will only ever hear stories of them, and not actually make memories with them.  Each year that goes by, while I don’t express it to my father, I silently countdown to age 67 and pray that Lil One and Mr. Man are spared the same sad conversation that I experienced.  Lil One loves her Jaju as much as, if not more, than I loved mine.  I know it’s morbid, but it’s a truth that I fear.  Today, please take action.  Please take control of your life, wellness, and health.  Take small steps, whether it be a 21-Day Sugar Detox , a Whole-30 Challenge , or by taking part in Pam’s 15-week Ease Your Way Into Paleo challenge .  Remember that each small step will lead to a larger one in the future.  We can sit back and be victims, and remain the most unhealthy and heaviest nation in the world, where more women die each year due to something as preventable as heart attacks and stroke, or we can all wear red and bring awareness to these statistics and work together, as a nation, in an effort to make this statistic history.  We owe it to our loved ones that have passed on, and also to our children—so that they will have memories made with their great grandparents, and not simply just have their name.

Please join me in wearing red and supporting the efforts of the American Heart Association.     

*data and statistics garnered from the AHA and their sister site, GoRedforWomen.org

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