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Dina Piersawl’s life changed during the 2003 holiday season. The former athlete, who ate healthy and worked as a personal trainer, was diagnosed with heart disease. She didn’t see it coming.

“I was visiting my parents,” said Dina. “I was hot. I had a headache that wouldn’t go away. My headache was getting worse by the day. I barely made it through the holidays with my parents,” remembers Dina, who said her mother initially noticed that her eyes looked funny. “When I returned back to Chicago, I just knew something was wrong. I could barely hold my head up. My head was killing me. It was like a headache the size of Texas; Texas is really big.”

Dina said the Texas-sized headache is what eventually caused her to go to the emergency room on December 20, 2003. “They had their holiday staff on duty. I was seen by probably a third year intern, young kid, still studying. I gave him my symptoms – heaviness in my chest, headache, can’t hold my head up. They took my blood pressure and it was off the charts. They sat me in the room with a nitroglycerin pack on and hoped that my blood pressure would go down. It never did. The intern says it is probably just holiday stress. He told me to go home and check back with my doctor after the holiday. I was sent home with elevated blood pressure. No tests. Sent home.” 

Dina went home and the symptoms didn’t get better. She went back on January 2, 2004. The regular staff was on duty and because her blood pressure was more elevated, they ran a battery of tests, including an EKG and MRI.

“I was diagnosed that day with having a mini stroke. If I hadn’t listened to my body I would not be here,” she continued.

In fact, according to the Black Women’s Health Imperative

  • One woman dies every minute from heart disease. 
  • Heart disease is the leading cause of death for Black women.
  • Black women are at a higher risk for heart disease because we carry one or more risk factors for the disease, including diabetes, obesity, poor diet, physical inactivity and excessive alcohol use. 
  • Black women don’t know what it feels like to have a heart attack because heart disease often has no symptoms or presents differently in women. 

“We think a heart attack will be a clinching of the chest and we will know exactly, but that’s not it,” said Essence Harris Banks, who was diagnosed with heart disease at age 30. She said she almost missed the symptoms.

“I was working out. I was a personal trainer at the time. I had shortness of breath when I was working out. I kept saying maybe I didn’t have the right breakfast this morning. [I would say] maybe I didn’t sleep well. I kept brushing it off and blaming it on other factors. Then I started having these hot flashes while working out. They were unbearable. [It was like] a flood of heat going through my body followed by heart palpitations and shortness of breath,” said Banks.

It wasn’t until she felt the symptoms when she was putting her son down for a nap that she knew she had to do something.

She went to the doctor, had all the tests and was told it was just anxiety. “I could have said yeah [the doctor] is right, and took three days off work and the anti-depressant pills, but something was off.” Essence kept pushing and finally was diagnosed. 

Both Dina and Essence, graduates of the WomenHeart Science and Leadership Symposium at Mayo Clinic, acknowledge the importance of reducing risk factors; knowing your cholesterol, body mass index and blood pressure numbers; eating a heart healthy diet, and exercising to aid in the prevention of heart disease, but they firmly believe their willingness to listen to their bodies is the reason they are alive today. 

“We really need to be our own [health] advocates,” said Dina. “We have to listen to our bodies.”

Evaluate your risk for heart disease using the Mayo Clinic’s Heart Risk Calculator.

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty, WomenHeart


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