When Star Jones learned she needed life-saving heart surgery in 2010, she was stunned — and not just by the severity of the situation.
The lawyer, author and TV personality was also shocked to realize she didn't even know she was sick.
"I'm supposed to be Miss Smarty Pants, and it never even occurred to me I might be at risk for cardiovascular disease or need open-heart surgery," she said. "That's what drives me to be a national volunteer for the American Heart Association. I want to shout from the rooftops and tell Black and brown people and women who look like me that heart disease can affect anyone."
For her longtime advocacy work in fighting heart disease, Jones will be honored by the American Heart Association with its Voice of the Mission Award. Jones will receive the award during the AHA's National Volunteer Awards event, a virtual ceremony that is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Central on Wednesday, June 14, and is open to the public.
"Star continues to shine a critical light on the importance of heart health for everyone," said American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown. "I am so grateful for her personal passion and her unyielding advocacy for our mission."
Born in North Carolina and raised in Trenton, New Jersey, Jones came from a family with a long history of heart disease. Still, she rarely, if ever, heard about how to prevent it.
"I'm a fourth-generation heart disease sufferer, but growing up, I don't think I ever heard about heart health. I heard about heart attacks, but not heart health."
A former New York City district attorney, Jones skyrocketed to fame in the 1990s as a TV journalist and analyst and a longtime co-host of ABC's The View. Last year, she took over the role of chief arbitrator on the longest running court show on TV, Fox's Divorce Court.
But as her celebrity status grew, so did her weight. She said obesity affected both her physical and mental health.
"A lot of people can be obese anonymously, except for their family and friends, but I was morbidly obese in front of the whole world. And there was a tremendous amount of fat-shaming," she said.
"I gained 70 pounds in a year, and very famous late-night comics made horrible, painful jokes about me. It was one of the darkest times in my life, but I pretended I was OK, which is why I think the depression set in."
Eventually, she sought help from a behavioral therapist. She also received some blunt counseling from friends and family.
"One friend came over to my house, looked me in the face and said, 'I am so afraid I'll come over here after not hearing from you for three days and find you dead on the floor,'" she said.
What finally clicked with Jones was advice from her godmother, who underwent weight loss surgery at age 60 and said she wished she'd done it 20 years earlier.
"Her words saved my life," Jones said. "I decided to make the change right then, at age 41, and I never looked back."
In 2003, she underwent gastric bypass surgery and began exercising and eating healthy. With weight loss surgery as the jumpstart and a commitment to diet and exercise, she lost 160 pounds over the course of two years and has maintained a healthy weight ever since.
But she continued to feel tired and out of breath even after she lost the weight. Her cardiologist, Dr. Valentin Fuster, a past president of the American Heart Association, diagnosed "a myriad of problems with my heart," including a malfunctioning aortic valve.
"I was floored," Jones said. "I thought to myself, 'Why is this happening to me now? I'm finally doing all the right things.'"
In 2010, she underwent open-heart surgery to repair the problems, followed by months of physical therapy and cardiac rehab. Thirteen years later, at age 61, she says she feels better than she's ever felt.
In addition to seeing a doctor regularly, she eats a healthy diet, continues to exercise regularly and practices self-discipline and portion control at every meal.
"It's a joy to wake up and feel this good," she said. "I'm honored to help the American Heart Association and be a messenger for their mission of saving lives. It's my life's work. It's my way of paying back the fact that I'm alive."