Special photo: Grammy Award-winning singer Ann Nesby is wearing red to bring attention to heart health.
More than seven years ago, a frightened Ann Nesby went to her local emergency room with pressure in her chest, and dizziness.
As an overweight, 50-year-old smoker, with high blood pressure and uncontrolled diabetes, with a family history of heart disease, Nesby was a prime candidate for heart attack, or stroke. And she knew it.
"I don't think you face the harsh reality until it hits you," she said. "You feel invincible until you find yourself right where your family history has been."
After waiting several hours to see a doctor in Fayette County, Nesby was taken to Southern Regional Medical Center. The Riverdale hospital is the only accredited chest pain center on the south side of Atlanta, said hospital spokeswoman Amanda Bartlett.
It was there that Nesby, a two-time Grammy Award-winning singer, met reality. She was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Bartlett said without treatment, Nesby would have likely died within a year, from a heart attack or stroke.
"I came into contact with great doctors," said Nesby. "Everything was laid out for me, education, nutrition, information on making a lifestyle change. I've made a drastic turnaround in my life."
With her roots firmly planted in the muffulettas and beignets of her native New Orleans, Nesby lived life in the trans fat lane. "It's no secret, I love rich food," she said. "Making the transition to a healthier lifestyle was so hard, because I never stopped loving to eat. But I had to become aware of how I prepare food, to eat in moderation, limit myself to what I eat, and how much, how to exercise off calories. Because I still love to eat."
Her immediate changes helped her drop 50 pounds. Undergoing gastric bypass, helped her shed another 50. "Of the major risk factors I had, weight was the most crucial," said Nesby. "I struggled so many years with other diets, trying to get my weight and blood pressure under control."
In the generations before Nesby's, the focus of heart health was on men. Until the mid-20th Century, men were the primary breadwinners. They carried the stresses of a daily job to support their families. But Nesby, and women like her, left their children in daycare, put pots on the back burner, and joined the men in the workforce. The additional income helped families make ends meet, but created the same stress-related issues in women that men had suffered with for years.
"Stress is a major factor," said Nesby. "Women are just as involved, and have as much on their plates as men. Women have been overlooked, but they are becoming more and more aware of their lifestyles and choices."
It took a while for the medical profession to catch up. For years, patients were inundated with the symptoms of a heart attack only to discover that they differ in men and women. For example, information provided by the American Heart Association specifies that women are "somewhat" more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea, or vomiting, and back or jaw pain.
Both genders experience uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of their chests. It can last more than a few minutes, or go away and come back. Other symptoms for both genders include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach; breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
Anyone with any of those signs of a heart attack should not wait more than five minutes before calling 911 for help, according to the AHA.
To get back on track, Nesby had to follow the seven keys to a healthy heart –– get active, control cholesterol, eat better, manage blood pressure, lose weight, reduce blood sugar and stop smoking. The road to better heart health has been an education for her. "People need to have a better understanding of their system, that small muscle is responsible for all the organs of your body," she said. "You have to respect the power of your heart. Be kind to your heart and your heart will be kind to you."
Now that she is in better control of her health, Nesby is spreading the word to others, especially women. "Get checked," she said. "Don't be afraid to go. If you have a loved one who hasn't been checked, insist they go because you love them. I'm excited that women are finally getting a fair shake in that department, for our health."
February has traditionally been recognized as heart health month because of Valentine's Day. Nesby will be wearing red to church on Feb. 26, and encourages others to do so. She also encourages Southern Crescent residents to undergo a free heart screening sponsored by Southern Regional Medical Center. Access www.southernregional.org/myheart, for information on upcoming screening sites in Fayetteville, Jonesboro and College Park.
"There are techniques available to live a long and prosperous life, even after a heart diagnosis," she said. "Even after a heart attack. If I had it to do all over again, I would take better care of my heart. That one muscle carries the whole body, and we need to make healthier heart choices."