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No one can sleep off a heart attack

What would you consider the greatest threat to your health? Only 1 in 5
American women would answer that question thinking heart disease is their greatest health risk, despite the fact that it is the number 1 killer of women. Many women don't even know the symptoms of a heart attack.

A mother’s journey with CHF
Katie O'Keeffe was diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) when she was only 36. Ten years later, she now lives in Poughkeepsie with her three children and reflects on her heart condition and her journey over the past 20 years.

O'Keeffe's journey began in her youth when she was told she had blood leaking back into her atrium chamber (mitral valve prolapse).
"I had chest pains when I was in my early 20's just out of college and working in New York City," she says.  "But I pushed myself working and within 4 years my heart changed and was leaking more.  In 1999 I had
open heart surgery and my valve was repaired."  

After the surgery, all was well. That was until a week after the birth of O'Keeffe's last child, when she knew something wasn't right. "I was having shortness of breath and I was overly fatigued," she explains.  "I went to the hospital right away and was told I had CHF. Through medication, a regimen at cardiac rehab and a healthy diet, I felt better again."

To maintain her health, O'Keeffe exercises, receives semi-annual checkups and sticks to a clean diet. "I eat low salt, less sugar and less fat. Monitoring what I eat in moderation is ongoing."

READ MORE: The health benefits of "mommy time"

No one can sleep off a heart attack
Carolyn Torella, Regional Communications Director at American Heart Association (AHA), explains, "Katie was smart and acted quickly. Subtle symptoms, such as sweating or feeling overly tired are clues to go with your gut."

According to the AHA, some heart attack symptoms women experience include chest pressure, pain in the chest or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach, shortness of breath, a cold sweat, nausea, vomiting and lightheadedness.

"Don't delay!" Torella warns. "A lot of mistakes are made, and no one can sleep-off a heart attack. Call 911, go to a hospital or drive yourself to an ER or a doctor. The biggest mistake is waiting. It can turn into permanent heart failure. Don't be embarrassed."

Staying active for her children and community
O'Keeffe takes care of her heart so she can continue to be a mother and member of the community. She is active with the AHA, an educator with a Master's degree in Special Education and General Education, a Girl Scout troop leader and a volunteer for Sparrow's Nest.

"I organized a girl scout team at the Dutchess Heart Walk," she says.  "This year I had my troop hand out water to the runners and walkers. It is wonderful to spread awareness of heart disease and it's great for the kids to become aware of heart health. The AHA is such an amazing organization and I am in awe of all they do."

READ MORE: The secrets to a long, healthy life

A switch in diet, a healthy heart
Tina Piaquadio, a mother of two from Montgomery and owner of Salon 52, has managed Type I diabetes since her youth, so she has always been aware of the risks associated with heart disease.

"It was during an annual OBG-YN exam when Dr. Padma Garvey shared with me the benefits of a plant based diet," recalls Piaquadio.

Dr. Padma Garvey of the Caremount Medical Group, graduate from University of Pittsburgh Medical School is an OBG-YN, whose practice guides women on heart disease risk factors, symptoms and healthy choices.

"I studied the plant-based diet at Cornell," explains Dr. Garvey.  "And it is my responsibility as a doctor to share this information with patients like Tina. Generally women develop heart disease about a decade later than men do."

READ MORE: See what Dr. Padma Garvey says about "the perfect diet"

Ingredients for a plant based diet
The plant based diet is not a diet for weight loss, but a lifestyle whereby a person limits consumption of meat, fish and dairy products. It is based on fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains and legumes; and it excludes refined foods like bleached flour, refined sugar and oils.

Piaquadio explains how a typical day for her goes since she began the plant based diet. She says, "My typical day begins with a cup of coffee, coconut milk and a plant based protein powder. Then between 10am and 12pm I'll eat a Kind Bar or nuts. I work out in the morning, especially cardio and weight training."

Dr. Garvey notes one obstacle to getting the message out about how powerful diet can be is that most US medical schools spend two hours each day for the entire year learning medications but almost nothing about nutrition. The good news is that the American Medical Association (AMA) has recommended for hospitals to provide only plant based diets to patients.  

"It is important for women to become more informed about heart disease and how to lower the risks by going for an annual check-up, eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, to exercise regularly, drink more water, less alcohol and have a routine sleep cycle of 7-9 hours each night,"
recommends Dr. Garvey.

Joan Reid is a writer for healthcare, education and non-profit organizations. And the Woman Smiled is her latest book.