Barbara Marquez arrived home from the heart-health seminar inspired by what she'd heard and carrying a bag of goodies.
She sat at her desk and spread out the pamphlets and trinkets. A red, heart-shaped magnet would remind her of this delightful afternoon with her sister and friends, so she pinned it to the wall above her desk.
The next day, she watched her two teenage sons play basketball and helped oversee registration for Little League baseball. Before going out for dinner, she and her youngest son took their two dogs for a walk around the block.
By the first corner, Barbara needed a break. It happened again at the next corner. By the third corner, breathing was so difficult that she sat down. She stopped several times over the final stretch.
"This is weird," she thought.
Sitting in a chair at home, breathing somehow became more of a chore. Pain shot down her arm. Her jaw hurt so much that her teeth throbbed. She felt dizzy and nauseous, her mouth too dry to swallow a pill.
As each symptom flared, she looked across the room at the red, heart-shaped memento listing the warning signs of a heart attack. She realized she was experiencing many of them. So she …
Barbara's reluctance is why her story matters. Here's a woman who cared enough about her heart to devote a day to attending a seminar, then posted the warning signs in her home, yet still wasn't prepared for the reality of it happening to her the very next day.
February is American Heart Month, a time for all Americans to learn more about heart disease being our No. 1 killer. Awareness and education are important, but so is accepting that it can happen to anyone at any time.
Barbara's health woes began at 18. The list grew to include rheumatoid arthritis, the neuromuscular disorder fibromyalgia and a rare autoimmune disease called Behcet's syndrome that causes an inflammation of blood vessels.
As of February 2017, her conditions were under control. However, she was overweight and loaded with stress. Every weekday, she drove 25 minutes from her home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to care for her mother, who'd lost her eyesight to macular degeneration and was battling lung cancer.
Her mom lived in Isleta Pueblo, a tribal community that dates to the 1300s. The tribe has its own health care center, and the facility often hosts awareness events. Organizers relied on Barbara to post signs, hand out fliers and do whatever else was needed to recruit attendees.
At those events, she learned all about diabetes and cancer. It's also how she learned about a Go Red for Native American Women event.
Barbara showed up already wary of heart disease.
At 15, her dad died from a staph infection that settled in his heart. He was 48. So many of his relatives had died from strange heart issues in their late 40s that they called it "the family curse."
She's the baby among five sisters. When the one closest in age to Barbara turned 50, the oldest four cheered that they'd avoided the curse. The day of the Go Red event, Barbara was two months shy of her 50th birthday.
The seminar featured everything from Native American dancers to lessons on handling insurance. Speakers included survivors and doctors.
Barbara learned that heart disease kills more women each year than all forms of cancer combined. Hearing that diabetes and high blood pressure up your risk of heart disease, she began to worry – about her sister Yolanda. Looking across the table, Barbara thought: "What would I do without her? I might have to care for her and our mom."
Barbara is an inch or two taller than Yolanda. Barbara often joked that her longer legs were the reason she walked faster than Yolanda. Yet as they headed to Yolanda's car, Barbara said: "Slow down! You're walking too fast. I can barely breathe."
"I am going slow," Yolanda said. "Do you feel OK?"
"I'm just having a hard time breathing," Barbara said. "I probably have a cold."
Now Barbara was back home from the walk with her son and dog, and again struggling to breathe. Plus, she was experiencing the other symptoms.
Her attention kept zooming to the magnet.
Instead of considering the timing of the Go Red Event a good thing, she thought, "I'm just imagining this."
Her mind wandered into bizarre territory: "Could I have wished this into existence?"
With her skin clammy and sweat starting to drip down her forehead, Barbara asked for her phone.
She needed to dial 911.
Paramedics arrived within seven minutes.
Barbara was so ready for their arrival that she was waiting on the porch. She was packed to go, too, having loaded her ID, insurance card and cell phone into her knitting bag.
The EKG looked fine. Indeed, her symptoms were improving.
Paramedics offered to take her to the hospital just to be safe, and she accepted. They were hardly out of the driveway when another EKG showed a serious problem.
The lights went on, the siren wailed and Barbara thought she may have seen her sons for the last time.
"I understand those are your kids but don't look over there," the paramedic treating her said. "Stay focused on me. I'm going to make sure you get through this."
The paramedic explained the medicines Barbara was receiving. She braced Barbara for a wild scene at the hospital and warned, "Don't lose focus or else you can't help yourself."
Barbara had a 99 percent blockage in her right coronary artery, which pumps blood to the lungs. She was essentially suffocating.
Soon Barbara was in a catheterization lab. Before doctors could start a procedure to open the blockage, they struggled to find a pulse in her right wrist.
"I found it!" she heard a doctor say. "We're going in."
When Barbara regained consciousness, the first person she saw was the paramedic.
It took three stents to restore full blood flow in Barbara's heart. A doctor said that without calling for help, Barbara would've died in about 20 minutes.
She spent five days in the hospital, then 12 weeks in cardiac rehabilitation. At first, she couldn't walk a mile. By the end, she'd discovered a love of running.
As her health improved, the rest of her world spiraled. Her mother developed a brain tumor and died six months later. Two days after, her husband – a military veteran who'd been secretly drowning his PTSD pain in alcohol – was found dead.
"That's when I realized why the family curse didn't hit me," Barbara said. "If I was gone, my mom and my husband would've helped raise the boys – and now they're both gone. It's totally up to me now."
Barbara recently celebrated the 2-year anniversary of her heart attack, a few days after this year's Go Red for Native American Women event, which she of course attended.
Since her heart attack, Barbara has lost 65 pounds, thanks in part to overhauling her diet. She goes to the gym in Isleta Pueblo, continuing many of her cardiac rehab exercises. The love of running has continued; she's run several 5Ks.
She remains a recruiter for health awareness events, for diabetes and cancer, as well as heart health. Sometimes she takes the stage.
"I want to teach people to take care of themselves, to go to the doctor and get checked," she said. "If you think something's wrong, don't wait for help. Get to the hospital. If they say it's not a heart attack, that's good news!"
Another change is a tattoo on her right wrist that's packed with meaning.
While Barbara was recovering, her nephew Louie – Yolanda's son, a former Marine drill instructor with whom she's always been close – often said, "Auntie, in order to survive your heart attack, you've got to be strong and you have to stay strong."
"Be strong" is now inked on the underside of her wrist, above the squiggly lines taken from a printout of the EKG in the ambulance. The waves are arched almost like tombstones, a colloquial term with an obvious double meaning.
"Stay strong" is inked on the top of her wrist, above the squiggly lines of her healthy EKG reading.
Between the phrases is a colorful heart – not the symbolic shape like the red magnet on her wall, but a diagram of a human heart. It also partially covers the scar left from the catheterization procedure that saved her life.
"Whenever I struggle with my health or other stress, I look at my wrist," she said. "That's my reminder: 'Be strong. Stay strong.'"
A version of this column also appeared on Thrive Global.
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