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Building healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke.
Eleven years ago, a call from Michelle Burke's doctor interrupted dinner at home.
She needed surgery and she needed it right away. Exhaustion had prompted Michelle, then 32, to see a different doctor a few months before. "You've got three young children," her former doctor had told her. "Everybody's tired." Michelle's sister Shari had died of heart disease at age 19. "Despite my family history, no one considered that I might have heart disease."
But Michelle had cardiomyopathy, a serious disease in which the heart muscle becomes weakened and doesn't work as well as it should. It can also cause arrhythmias, abnormal heartbeats that make the heart pump less effectively. Most arrhythmias aren't life-threatening, but some are extremely dangerous and require treatment and management. Michelle's would.
Michelle was in the hospital for 10 days. She had medications adjusted to help her heart function better, and doctors implanted an internal cardiac defibrillator (ICD) to deliver an electrical shock if her heart went into a dangerous rhythm.
The ICD implant was only the start of the changes in her life. Michelle committed to take better care of herself. Before her diagnosis, she would eat the crusts off her kids' peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and stay up late to do an extra load of laundry instead of exercising. Taking care of herself was not a priority.
Thanks to our Go Red For Women initiative, Michelle has learned to take steps to protect her heart. "Don't ignore your symptoms. You are the expert on you. If you have fears or questions or you're not feeling well, get it checked out."
That commitment to getting healthier has rubbed off on daughter Madison, 16, who has joined the Youth Advisory Board of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (our partnership with the William J. Clinton Foundation). Madison works with other youth to empower kids to make healthy changes to prevent childhood obesity.
Lecturer Laurence Payne gets a lot of feedback from his message: Don't ignore the warning signs of a stroke.
Many times he'll hear "To my shock I was a stroke waiting to happen," and "Your message saved my life."
Laurence, an Advisory Committee member of our American Stroke Association division and an ambassador for Power To End Stroke, weaves this message into his lectures on leadership to universities, colleges, churches and other nonprofits. Laurence had "little signs" weeks before a stroke flattened him in the summer of 2006. His vision blurred. His left arm felt numb. He slurred some words. When he felt dizzy, he thought he just needed to eat lunch. But the signs were "nothing that really grabbed my attention." Collapsing on a sidewalk did. A friend found him and called 9-1-1.
After a seven-day hospital stay and a year of physical therapy that included relearning how to walk and talk, life wasn't easy. For the first few months, he'd sit up and swing his feet to the floor "and see what was working." He needed patience to figure that out - and even more patience as the stroke "played havoc personally and professionally."
Remembering to do laundry and pay bills was hard. Remembering friends' names has been even harder. "I still walk up to people I've known for 30 years and can't recall their name to save a life," he said. "It's an overwhelming feeling of loss." What keeps him going? His spirituality and his passion to help others by spreading the word through Power To End Stroke. "I wouldn't have asked for a stroke for anything in the world. But I've learned that there's tremendous power in helping save a life."
Tracey Kennedy was alone in a hotel room when she felt an explosion in her left eye.
"All I could see was a large black ink splatter." When she shook her head, the blackness seemed to spread, "like food coloring dripped in water."
She was 28 and six months pregnant. Tracey learned she'd had a stroke. An undiagnosed heart defect had caused a blood clot that traveled to her brain and caused the stroke. "There's one more problem,'" her doctor told her. 'We don't know if you'll survive childbirth.'"
When her son Drew was born three months later, Tracey felt fine and thought she was home free. But eight years later, she learned the headaches and vision loss she blamed on the stress of a divorce were really mini-strokes. She needed openheart surgery.
After recovering, she decided to share her story to educate others. She started by speaking at a local dinner and ended up on Capitol Hill.
Tracey, 2008 Volunteer Advocate of the Year, is an active member of the American Heart Association's You're The Cure network and serves on the Rhode Island Advocacy Committee. She has been instrumental in securing congressional support for the STOP Stroke and HEART for Women acts.
Along the way, her son Drew became a youth advocate. He experienced his first Lobby Day five years ago, at age 12. When a senator asked him why he was there, his answer was easy. "'We need to make sure you fund heart research to help people like my mom survive.'" Said Tracey, "You can have all sorts of pamphlets and materials, but sometimes hearing people's stories is what resonates."
As a boy, Marvin Winans rarely made a move - in checkers or elsewhere in life - without his older brother and best friend, Ron.
"We did everything together and music was a big part of our lives," said pastor and gospel music pioneer Winans. Playing checkers, "The loser would make up a song. I don't know what we would've done if we hadn't had music."
As adults, the brothers sang together, won Grammy awards together and were on Broadway together. Winans said Ron loved food and was the heaviest of the 10 siblings. Ron was in his early 40s when he had a heart attack.
"He had eight more years with us. He did everything he wanted to," Winans said. "He sang, recorded albums and traveled to Korea. Then his heart began to go bad and he said he was done."
Ron died in 2005 at age 49. "We probably could've had him much longer if he'd taken better care of himself. Understanding that, our family has pledged to live better - and help others do the same."
Winans is a national Ambassador for the American Stroke Association's Power To End Stroke movement. He's passionate about educating the community and his congregation at the Perfecting Church in Detroit, where he is pastor. It's a natural fit: Spirituality was another boyhood love he shared with Ron. "When we played, we played church. It was that important in our lives."
The church's health and fitness department hosts the annual Ron Winans Heart of a Champion 5k to increase awareness about heart disease and stroke. It also offers health classes and screenings. Said Winans, "We don't have to continue to lose our young people to preventable diseases."
Ernie Marquez's career path was set when he started watching the TV show 'Emergency' as a young boy.
Years later, after he took his first EMT course, he was hooked. "Once you ride for the first time, it's a done deal," said Ernie, a Los Angeles firefighter and paramedic. When he experienced crushing chest pain while on duty last year, he didn't wait to take action. He knew he was having a heart attack; it felt just like it had been described to him in training. He called 9-1-1.
In the ambulance, Ernie was hooked up to an in-field 12-lead ECG, a test that measures the heart's electrical activity. It quickly identified that he was suffering from STEMI, a serious type of heart attack that carries a substantial risk of death and disability. A 12-lead ECG is an important tool in diagnosing heart attacks. "I was treated quickly because the hospital knew they had an acute STEMI coming, and they were ready for me."
Ernie speaks on behalf of Mission: Lifeline, the American Heart Association's community-based initiative to improve systems of care for STEMI patients. With national guidelines coming out to recommend STEMI Receiving Centers, the first hurdle will be getting 12-lead ECGs into the hands of more paramedics.
"If I can educate someone about the system, maybe I'll save a life. The average person will sit and wait. People must call 9-1-1 right away to get the system to work for them."