As the American Heart Association confidently proclaims: You’re the cure...
“We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.”
I can’t say that I was close to Christine or knew her well, but I vividly remember having gym class with her one year and can’t help but recall how she livened up that period with her humor, her laughter, her smile—always pleasant, always friendly.
At that time in my life, I was a bit of what you might call a juvenile delinquent. While others snubbed me, spread rumors or gossiped behind my back—Christine, who must have heard the same crap everyone else heard, never batted an eye, never judged. She took everything in stride and was never petty.
When I found out she died, I was shocked and saddened. What in the world could have happened to her? Strange sign of the times that it is, it didn’t take long to find out…I Googled her and promptly discovered her obituary.
The basic facts of her life were ordinary enough: she had been married, she had a dog, she attended church and she worked as a receptionist. It was all very ordinary except for one thing: a near lifelong battle with heart disease, which finally took her life at age 35.
According to the obituary, Christine had a bout with strep throat as a teenager that led to rheumatic heart disease and ended up damaging her heart valves. She had her first major surgery to replace or repair three heart valves when she was only 13.
As I read these details, I suddenly remembered the scars on Christine’s chest that were visible when were we changing for gym class. Out of politeness and respect, I always acted like I didn’t notice them.
Vaguely, I could recall someone—maybe Christine herself—mentioning that she had a heart problem and had had surgery. But, I don’t think I ever really knew the details—or the severity of what she had faced.
As anyone who knew her could attest, she certainly didn’t seem like someone who had any kind of weakness. She was active and capable, bright and bubbly, tall and sturdy-looking.
Whatever fears or anxiety she may have felt at any given time, she never acted like a victim. She was open and generous. She was not afraid of challenge or exertion. She didn’t lament the hand of cards life had dealt her. She was consistently funny, pleasant and positive.
I was not entirely surprised, but was impressed to learn how positive Christine’s life had actually been. Making the best of a grim, ever-present part of her reality, she had become a survivor spokesperson for the American Heart Association, using her personal story to draw attention to the “invisible killer,” women’s heart disease.
She volunteered at local Heart Walk and Heart Ball events, she was an active member of the AHA’s You're the Cure grassroots network, and even met with state and federal legislators. Christine's dedicated outreach helped influence key decision makers and raise community awareness about the continued need to invest in research, education and programs that fight heart disease and stroke.
Her life itself bore testament to an overlooked fact: yes, it happens to women—and, yes, it can happen to people of all ages.
If I might, in this one instance, be so bold as to speak on Christine’s behalf, I think she would want anyone reading this to know that most heart disease is preventable—and that it affects women as much as it affects men. In fact, heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States and a leading cause of disability among women. The good news is: we can all take steps to prevent it.
If you look no further than this article for information, please consider some basic tips:
• Quit smoking. If you smoke, devise a plan to quit and implement it as soon as possible. If you don’t smoke, congratulate yourself—you’ve done a good thing for your body.
• Reduce Stress. I know this is easier said than done, but it basically boils down to this in the end—do more of what you love and less of what you don’t. Whether you find your way to relaxation through meditation, gardening, listening to soft ambient music or getting a massage—take time out for yourself when you need it. Resist the urge to over-schedule and learn to say “no” to people and situations that drain you.
• Get active. We all know sedentary life is bad for the heart. You don’t need a gym membership, fancy equipment or the latest workout DVDs—just take a walk. It doesn’t really matter what you do as long as you move your body vigorously and do it consistently. You’ll be more likely to stick with an activity you enjoy.
• Clean up your diet. There’s plenty of information out there on how to prevent—or even reverse—heart disease. Search the internet, check out books online, or visit your local bookstore and browse the health and nutrition section. Dr. Dean Ornish’s books may be a good place to start. Do cut back on saturated fats, make the switch from refined grains to whole grains and increase your intake of fruits and vegetables.
As the American Heart Association confidently proclaims: You’re the cure. And it’s true. If we want to end heart disease—or at least greatly reduce the threat—the victory will not be won through charitable contributions and research alone.
Only when enough of us make the effort required to support and nourish our own precious hearts, will heart disease no longer be common. Every heart attack, every loss from heart disease or stroke reminds us—we need to do better. And every time a woman is affected, we are reminded that this isn’t just a “man’s problem”—it’s everyone’s problem.
While I surely have forgotten many things in the post-high school years of my life, my heart remembers the people, moments and events that marked it, for better or worse.
My heart remembers Christine very fondly and I’m sure many others can say the same. More than 15 years later, I can still hear echoes of her laughter. I remember the flush of her cheeks when she blushed, when she glowed, when she hustled on the gym floor.
I remember her pixie-like hair, her eyes—clear, bright and expressive behind her glasses—and the incomparable warmth of her personality. Though I don’t think I ever ran into her since high school, and the period of time I knew her was relatively brief, she, unwittingly, left a little of her essence with me.
A lover of animals, a true “people person,” a community educator, courageous spokesperson, and friend to many—Christine’s heart may have been compromised physically, but in the ways that mattered most, it was tremendously strong.
Thank you, Christine, for bringing your sunshine, your awareness—and your story—to so many people.
You and your beautiful heart will be missed.
To learn more about women’s heart disease—and how to prevent it, visit: WomenHeart
To join the American Heart Association’s fight against our nation’s No. 1 and No. 3 killers, heart disease and stroke, please consider donating HERE