February is designated Heart Month to draw special attention to heart disease, the No. 1 killer of Americans, particularly women. To mark the month, the American Heart Association chose four women as the "Go Red for Women, Real Women of Tampa Bay." Their mission: to help change our thinking about cardiovascular disease and show that even young, seemingly healthy women are at risk, too.
Each survived a life-changing cardiovascular event. They hope sharing their stories will save others from the same fate.
Meagan Broucek tells people she was born with half a heart. As an infant, she was diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a rare birth defect in which the left side of the heart doesn't fully develop during pregnancy. If not treated right away the condition is fatal.
"The doctors told my parents they could either take me home to die or they could try an experimental surgery, which had a 50/50 chance of working," said Broucek, 26, who lives in Holiday. "They chose the surgery, thank goodness." At just 5 days old, Broucek had her first open heart surgery. Two more major surgeries followed. Today, she's a preschool teacher and is working toward a master's degree. Those early surgeries to reroute her blood supply are still working well, but there's a chance that could change. She tells her story so others will know there's still a need for education, research and new treatments.
Kristen Powers was 33 and training for a half Ironman triathlon when she was thrown from her bike, struck her helmeted head and rushed to the hospital, where doctors closed a gash in her forehead. She and her husband were in the hospital parking lot, headed home, when her speech suddenly became garbled and her right side was paralyzed.
Doctors discovered a small tumor blocking blood flow to her brain, causing a stroke. The bike accident probably dislodged the tumor, which traveled to her brain. Doctors used a special instrument to pluck it out and restore blood flow.
Powers had to relearn how to walk, talk, think, write, tie her shoes, brush her hair. She was out of work for months. Now, the 38-year-old interactive media designer wants others to know that even though her stroke probably wasn't preventable, there's a lot you can do to save lives and prevent permanent disability.
"Know the warning signs, learn the FAST acronym (Face drooping, Arm weakness, Slurred speech, Time counts)," she said. "If you recognize the symptoms in someone, call 911 immediately and realize that stroke isn't just an elderly person's disease."
It was a classic symptom: awful chest pain radiating down one arm. And it bothered Lynette Bear on and off for about three months. A full medical checkup with all the appropriate cardiac tests uncovered nothing. Then one morning, she was found unconscious on the floor at work.
Bear's co-workers at the Laser Spine Institute in Tampa knew just what to do. Someone started CPR; someone hooked her up to a cardiac monitor; someone called 911. When the monitor found no heartbeat, they pulled in another machine and still got a flat line. Someone got a defibrillator and shocked her heart back to a normal rhythm.
"I was in the right place at the right time," said Bear of that day in 2007. Now 50, she was just 41 at the time — healthy, active, with no known risk factors for heart disease.
Her message: Learn the symptoms of heart disease, including the nontraditional ones that many women experience. Learn CPR. And press for more answers if you don't feel well, despite what tests and doctors say.
Ruby Hope had many risk factors and warning signs but didn't realize they were life-threatening. For weeks, she had been feeling extreme exhaustion, left arm pain and heaviness, shortness of breath and an overwhelming feeling of doom.
She had a doctor's appointment coming up, so the now 56-year-old nurse manager waited. When she showed up, the doctor sent her right to the hospital. Hope was in the throes of a heart attack and needed a quadruple bypass. "I felt so much better after treatment," she said. "I didn't realize how sick I was until I felt better."
Now she knows that, as a long-time diabetic with kidney disease and a family history of cardiovascular disease, she was at high risk for heart disease. She also learned the hard way that "there are different symptoms for different people."
Hope's message doesn't stop there: "If you don't feel right, don't ignore it. Tell someone. … Don't be afraid to get help."