Life is all about choices. Stairs or elevator? Baked or fried? Watch TV or go for a walk? The bad news is that many people abuse their health by making poor choices. The good news is that you can start making a difference in your health through small changes.
In an effort to save the women in our lives, the American Heart Association hosted Go Red Casting Calls around the country and asked women to share their heart-healthy stories. According to Barbara Ducharme, marketing director for the American Heart Association – Twin Cities, nearly 1,000 women participated across the country in 48 different Casting Calls and another 750 women submitted their stories online at www.GoRedForWomen.org.
The local Go Red Casting Call was held at the Mall of America on Feb. 6—National Wear Red Day. Over 42 women attended the Casting Call, and three local semi-finalists advanced to the Midwest Affiliate: Barbara Lake of Plymouth, Lynn Clark of Minneapolis, and Maya Fors of Farmington. On June 1, nine women were selected to be national Casting Call winners and 2009-10 American Heart Association spokeswomen. Here, the three Twin Cities’ semi-finalists share their unique stories:
When Barbara Lake’s mom Beverly Riley passed away last year, she gave Barbara an incredible gift—knowledge and determination that could save Barbara’s life and spare her children the grief she is experiencing. That gift, though, came at the terrible price of losing her mom to a heart attack.
It was Memorial Day, 2008 and Beverly, 73, woke up feeling nauseous and achy, especially in the back of her neck. Her first instinct was that she had the flu. As the day progressed, her symptoms grew worse—to the point that she was struggling to catch her breath.
“Still, my mother didn’t complain,” Barbara says. “My father was not aware what she was suffering.”
When Beverly told her husband Earl that she was having trouble breathing, he suggested taking her to the emergency room. She didn’t want to go to the hospital. What if it was only the flu? She didn’t want to trouble anyone and make something out of nothing.
Finally—six hours later—she reluctantly gave in. Earl drove his wife to the best hospital around, nearly an hour away, and once there, the attending doctors couldn’t stabilize her and recommended she be taken by ambulance to Duluth, another hour’s drive away.
“By that point my mother was now in the eighth hour of a heart attack,” Barbara says.
After the doctors in Duluth stabilized her, she started feeling a tingling sensation in her skin. She went into cardiac arrest, was rushed to surgery, and it was there that the physicians discovered a tear in her heart. The tear couldn’t be fixed. She died that evening in surgery.
“I arrived too late to see her, too late to help her, too late to say goodbye, too late to tell her that I loved her,” Barbara says.
Her mom had always pushed her own children to go to the doctor when something wasn’t right, but didn’t do the same for herself. In the end, it was what killed her.
“As I view it, my brave mother died needlessly,” Barbara says. “If she had been aware that she was possibly suffering from a heart attack, if my father had been more aware of the symptoms, she would probably be alive today.”
Today there is a deep void in Barbara’s life that her mom once filled. She was the one Barbara called when she wanted to talk about her job as a school administrator for School District 287, her latest white water rafting or skiing adventure, or what was going on with her family – Devra, Lane, and her grandson Bennett, Sgt. Jenna out in Colorado, and Corey in Wisconsin Rapids. She was the person Barbara leaned on in times of need and now she was gone.
“It is my mission, as a result of my mother’s death, to make sure that all women understand what the symptoms of a heart attack are. I don’t want other daughters and grandchildren to lose their mother—their rock and anchor—unnecessarily. I want to encourage women to take care of themselves and seek help when they need it. I want women to be proud of who they are and do the things they must in order to live long, healthy lives. I want to make sure that men know more about the health of the women in their lives,” Barbara says. “This is my goal.”
If there’s one lesson Lynn Clark learned last year, it’s that it’s never too late to turn the corner to better health. After smoking for 40 years and living a mostly sedentary lifestyle (complete with extra weight gain), something clicked for her while at a 50th anniversary celebration for relatives out in Lake Tahoe. She was sneaking a smoke outside during the party when distant relatives passed by. She was embarrassed to be seen smoking.
“I didn’t want them to know I was that stupid,” she admits.
The second motivation to quit came shortly after the anniversary party, when she was complaining to her sister Barbara—who is in excellent health—that she recently paid $7 for a pack of cigarettes.
“She was disgusted that I still smoked,” Lynn says. “She said ‘Don’t even think about smoking around me or the kids.’ She told me to quit.”
Normally those words would go in one ear and out the other, but Lynn saw how Barbara lived—eating healthy food, working out on a regular basis, and getting enough sleep—and realized those were choices her sister made. Lynn, too, could choose to continue smoking, eating poorly, and not get enough rest, or she could choose to take care of herself. She wasn’t destined to be the “unhealthy sister” forever.
When she returned home from vacation, she bought a box of nicotine patches, put one on, and hasn’t had a cigarette since. She also changed her bad sleep habits. Even though she works some long days as a realtor, she doesn’t let that interfere with her new nighttime ritual. She goes to bed at a decent time, refrains from eating for at least three hours before she goes to sleep, and unwinds with a book 30 minutes before she turns out the light.
“I now look forward to going to bed and sleeping all night. I can’t tell you what a huge difference it makes,” she says. “I don’t eat as much as I used to. I think I was fueling up with food to replace the lack of energy from not getting enough sleep.”
She is more careful about what she eats now, cooking healthy meals for her and her friend, Jerry, and she joined a local fitness center. Her exercise used to be limited to the occasional game of golf and walking Zorba, her standard poodle, but now she understands the importance of cardio activity. Little by little, this determined 59-year-old’s body is becoming stronger. Even when exercising feels like work, she makes time for it.
“It is amazing how you can improve your physical strength by doing a little at a time,” she comments.
Lynn wants people to know that it is never too late to stop smoking, start exercising and eating better, and getting quality sleep. Don’t wait until you have a serious health problem to make changes. And be patient, she says. Getting into shape can be a long process. It won’t happen overnight.
“It took more than one day to get in the shape you’re in now, so give yourself a break. Take it one day at a time,” she says. “Make yourself a priority. You’re worth it.”
Maya Fors has crammed a lot of life into her 27 years. She married Matt at age 19, had their daughter Layla shortly thereafter, went to school to become a neonatal intensive care unit nurse, lost her 48-year-old mother to a spontaneous heart attack when she was only 22, had her daughter Alessandra four years later, and recently decided to take control of her health—a decision that has made her a much happier and more energetic wife, mom, and friend.
“I have accepted that honoring my body, mind, and soul is my No. 1 priority,” she says. “Without balance, I really can’t be anything to anybody.”
After Layla was born, it became routine for Maya to skip meals “to the point of almost passing out from hunger” because she was too busy to stop and eat, a bad habit that resulted in binging on huge meals loaded with calories, additives, and MSG. She didn’t exercise and regularly felt fatigued.
It wasn’t until she lost her mom that she took a good look at how she was living and decided to take control of her health, not only for her own good, but for her husband, her children, her friends and extended family, and her future grandchildren.
She stays in shape today by hiking and doing pilates and yoga, and has become “fantastic” at reading and understanding food labels. She avoids fried food, makes lists before heading to the grocery store (to avoid random purchases), and experiments with different heart-healthy recipes on a regular basis.
By living healthy and motivating other women to follow her lead, Maya feels like she is keeping her mom’s spirit alive. She is a strong believer in the mission of the American Heart Association and is becoming a Go Red For Women Volunteer Ambassador. As an ambassador, she not only shows a commitment to loving her own heart, but helps other women in her community take steps toward better heart health.
“I Go Red so my mother’s story can live on and my daughters’ stories can begin,” she says. “I am grateful for the opportunity to share my experience.”