By Janna M. Hall
According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease stands as the number one killer of women each year. One in three women, to be exact, is fatally affected by some form of heart disease, and the number becomes even more staggering when broken down by race. When it comes to women over the age of 20, nearly half of Black women, a third of Hispanic women, and a third of White women are living with cardiovascular disease, 80% of which may be preventable. With proper education and understanding health risks, women can successfully defeat the odds and take control over the disease that claims a woman’s life every 80 seconds.
Even more powerful than the numbers of women affected by heart disease are the success stories of women who have defied the odds and reclaimed their lives. As we celebrate American Heart Month, we’re dedicated to “Going Red for Women” with the American Heart Association, sharing the stories and tips that’ll help millions of women ensure that their life story ends in triumph and not tragedy.
Richmond’s own Krystyn Young-Benham’s triumphant return from an unexpected health roadblock serves as both a wake-up call and inspiration for young women battling heart disease. In the summer of 2013, a physically fit Young-Benham felt discomfort while doing her usual weekday running. Where she’d normally have the stamina to go run 15 miles a week, she felt her body become heavy and sluggish, almost as if she were running through quicksand.
When she felt that peculiar feeling of discomfort, her first thought was that it could be bronchitis. She called her sister who described the symptoms, and when hers matched, she headed to Patient First to get treatment. The doctors treated her with a Z-Pak and gave instructions to return in five days if symptoms persisted. Sure enough, by day five her condition worsened.
“I felt like I was dragging my body everywhere,” she recalls. “I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t sleep; it really felt like I was dying. When I went back to Patient First, I told them I needed an x-ray because I knew there was something going on with my heart.”
Doctors switched her diagnosis to pneumonia, but after a day of taking the prescribed meds, she got the call that there was in fact a bigger issue at hand. Despite no genetic history of heart disease in her family, Young-Benham learned that her heart was abnormally enlarged.
After getting set up with a doctor at Bon Secours, a round of tests, and many exhausting hours spent waiting for rooms and results, Young-Benham got the alarming call that she had Idiopathic Cardiomyopathy and was in heart failure. Thirty-five, active, and in heart failure, with no family history of heart disease? The news came as quite a shock. A few days later, her condition took a turn for the worse as she suffered a stroke.
“During the stroke, it felt like I was listening to the radio; I could hear everyone around me talking, but I couldn’t respond,” Young-Benham explains. “When doctors told me that it happened to me, I didn’t believe them. But I had to relearn how to do everything again. I could walk with assistance, but I couldn’t write, and I spoke with a slight slur. I had to reprogram the left side of my body, at 35 years old.”
Perhaps it was the 35-year-old fire that still burned within that kept Young-Benham determined to make a full recovery, and quickly. In fact, by October, just five months after her health crisis, she regained all of her abilities and returned to work a month later. To make her recovery even more extraordinary, the day before anniversary of stroke, she was completely off all medication.
Young-Benham’s journey is simply remarkable, and her life is a testament to what your body can do to overcome even the toughest odds.
“I know it sounds like a lot happened, but if you saw me, you wouldn’t have a clue,” she says. “That’s why I tell my story, especially to my peers. Because when you see me, you see me as one of you—one of your peers. [Young adults] don’t take into consideration that it can happen to them. But it can.”
Since then, Young-Benham has opened her own photography business, Heart Strong Pix, and takes every opportunity to share her story to both educate and inspire women on all things heart health. She’s become very active with the American Heart Association, speaking at luncheons and connecting with women she calls “Survivor Sisters.” Whether at church or in the workplace, Young-Benham owns her role as a true Heart Health Ambassador in Richmond, Virginia and beyond. It turns out that what would normally serve as a major setback propelled her into a space where her voice is not only appreciated, but much needed in the saving of other women’s lives.
When it comes to education, it’s never too late to get in tune with your body and understand the risk factors you
face. The American Heart Association recommends “Knowing Your Numbers”: Total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and body mass index (BMI). Knowing those numbers helps women and their healthcare provider determine their risk for developing cardiovascular diseases.
Young-Benham also suggests incorporating heart health education in the workplace, which she plans to do on February 24th. She’ll be bringing in doctors to host a Love Your Heart seminar in celebration of American Heart Month.
“You can definitely start heart health education in the workplace. You’re there all the time, and you already pay top dollar for insurance. Look for women’s networks or other ways that you can understand more about your health.”
Part of her education included educating herself. While in the hospital, she was determined to not let long words like “cardiomyopathy” scare her. She pulled out her iPad and researched everything so that at every turn, she was fully aware of what was happening in her body. And she encourages others to do the same.
Krystyn Young-Benham’s health scare and experiences have only given her a greater purpose, and the platform she’s been given only inspires other women to live their healthiest lives. Her life is a testament to what you can do when you’re determined to live.
“You have to want to live,” she says. “Regardless of what’s going on in your life, you have to want to live the best life you can live. I was so determined to not depend on anyone, and maybe it was the 35-year-old in me, but I never lost my fight, and I never lost my determination. So I tell other women going through this that they don’t have to leave this world without making an imprint. Despite everything, stay determined to leave a mark and make it known that you were here.”
- Stroke is the No. 5 cause of death in the United States, killing nearly 130,000 people a year. That’s roughly 1 in every 20 deaths.
- Nearly 65% of women age 20 and older are overweight or obese.
- About 60% are non-Hispanic whites;
- About 80% are non-Hispanic blacks; and,
- About 75% are Hispanics.
- About 45% of women in America age 20 or older have total cholesterol of 200 mg/dl or higher.
- About 30% of women in America have high blood pressure.
Heart Attack Warning Signs
- Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
- Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
- Shortness of breath. This may occur with or without chest discomfort.
As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
Stroke Warning Signs
- Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
- Sudden confusion, or trouble speaking or understanding
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness or loss of balance or coordination
- Sudden, severe headache with no known cause
Heart Strong Pix Gallery
Photos courtesy of Krystyn Young-Benham, Heart Strong Pix