Carrie Vincent is a wife and mother from Westminster, Md., and she's on a nationwide mission about an issue close to her heart -- women and heart attacks.
In December, Vincent held her first "heartwarming party" -- a gathering of women in her community who listened to chilling details of the day she nearly lost her life.
As the women gathered over platters of heart-healthy snacks, Vincent, who is petite, fit and looks perfectly healthy -- told her improbable story.
"I'm here today because 16 months ago, I had a heart attack," Vincent told the group.
Just five days after she gave birth to her first child, Vincent suffered a massive heart attack. The pressure and nausea overwhelmed her as she sat on the couch holding her newborn son. Vincent was rushed to the hospital by ambulance, and then airlifted to a major medical center where doctors broke the news.
"My God, I was 31 years old -- 31-year-olds don't have heart attacks," she remembers thinking.
She had no family history of heart disease and said she was aware of no previous symptoms, which cardiologist Dr. Sharonne Hayes, director of the Women's' Heart Clinic at the Mayo Clinic, said was no surprise.
"It is the No. 1 killer of women, but they don't know it, and their health care providers don't know it," Hayes said.
Nearly a half-million women die of heart disease every year, and more than 44 million women are at risk, according to the American Heart Association. Hayes said that even within the women's health community, doctors often miss the warning signs.
So the Mayo Clinic and a Washington, D.C., advocacy group called WomenHeart are training an army of messengers to raise awareness about heart disease in women.
Since heart disease is more likely to be treated accurately in men than in women, this program gives female survivors a look at the medical equipment that helped save their lives. They handled the pacemakers that keep their hearts beating, and the tiny stents that hold open their blocked arteries.
These women are also learning to use the most powerful weapon they have against heart disease -- their personal stories.
Heart Disease Survivors Raise Awareness
"Women listen to other women, and that is part of the magic of this program," said Lisa Tate, chief executive officer of WomenHeart,
For Rosalind Taylor, it took five trips to her doctor to find out she was dying of heart failure. The 60-year-old grandmother from Birmingham, Ala., had repeatedly been misdiagnosed.
"I was coughing and coughing," she explained.
Taylor's doctor treated her for bronchitis, but the coughing did not stop.
"On the fifth visit, he had a psychiatrist come in to see me," Taylor said, shaking her head. "He was telling me it was in my head, and meanwhile I'm coughing myself to death."
Taylor made an appointment with a female doctor, who immediately diagnosed her with heart failure, and performed surgery to open two blocked arteries.
"She said, 'Ms. Taylor, if you had been a man, they'd have given you an EKG the first day.' When I think about it, I really get mad," Taylor said. "And I don't want this to happen to another woman."
Neither does Karla Goetting, a 45-year-old heart patient from Omaha, Neb. Goetting has a strong family history of heart disease. After her diagnosis she lost 150 pounds to reduce her risk.
"I'm trying to live a different life. I'm trying not to repeat the mistakes I've seen lived out before me," Goetting said.
By telling their stories, these women say, they feel less like victims.
"I feel like a conqueror. I can talk about it, and I might even save someone's life talking about it," Taylor said.
That is exactly what Vincent is trying to do. She said hopes to hold monthly "heartwarming" parties, the way women used to do with Tupperware parties -- but she isn't selling anything. She said she is just spreading the message of disease prevention, speaking from the heart.
For more information, visit WomenHeart's Web site at www.womenheart.org