When Keisha Hawes suffered a heart attack at age 31, she told the doctor and nurses they had the wrong person. Like many women, Keisha never thought heart disease could happen to her.
“When I heard them discussing a heart attack I thought they couldn’t possibly be talking about me,” she says.
Keisha had ignored the warning signs — which many women lack. She also had several risk factors: Heart disease runs in her family and she was diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure. But as a young, energetic mother who felt pretty good, she didn’t think she needed to worry.
And when she finally acknowledged her diagnosis, she downplayed it.
It’s no big deal, she told her husband. Don’t rush to the hospital.
But she was wrong. Her diagnosis, a 95 percent blockage in her coronary artery, was serious.
“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned through this experience is that I can’t be in control of everything in my life all the time,” Keisha says. “My heart attack taught me how to ask for help and showed me what a supportive family I have.”
This event also taught Keisha the importance of taking prescribed medications. Just months before her heart attack, she stopped filling and taking her diabetes and high blood pressure medications after she lost her job and could no longer afford them. She believed skipping a few months was no big deal.
But that decision, combined with a genetic predisposition and the stress of working multiple jobs, proved too much for Keisha’s heart.
While Keisha felt shocked and angry at first, she eventually considered herself lucky.
“This was my warning sign that I needed to make big changes, Keisha says. “Now I have the opportunity to do things differently rather than just dropping dead one day.”
Keisha heeded that warning by getting back on her meds and by making big changes to her lifestyle. With children ages eight, seven and a baby born a year after her heart attack, Keisha now emphasizes healthy eating and physical activity. She and her daughter have even trained for and participated in a 10K together.
“I know there is a family connection with this disease and I want it to stop with me,” she says.
Keisha also hopes to stop heart disease in her community, and advises friends and family to learn their numbers and commit to making changes to reduce their risk.
“We are all busy, but women must take the time to meet with their doctors and come up with a plan for taking charge of their own health,” Keisha says. “Then go out there and do it!”