Go Red for Women: American Heart Association
Every year, more than 200,000 women die from cardiovascular disease. And every year, the American Heart Association (AHA) continues its signature initiative, Go Red for Women, designed to increase awareness, institute change and, most importantly, save lives.
“It’s no longer just about wearing red; it’s no longer just about sharing heart health facts,” AHA says in a statement on its website. “It’s about all women making a commitment to stand together with Go Red and taking charge of their own heart health as well as the health of those they can’t bear to live without. Making a commitment to your health isn’t something you have to do alone either, so grab a friend or a family member and make a Go Red Healthy Behavior Commitment today.”
This month, the AHA is hosting its annual Central Arkansas Go Red for Women Luncheon, presented by Saline Health System, virtually on June 24 at noon, and its online auction adjacent to the luncheon from June 21 to June 24. Tickets to the luncheon will include a delivered box lunch for digital attendees to eat while watching the ceremony, and proceeds from both the luncheon and the auction will go toward continuing the mission of reducing heart disease, as about 80 percent of life-threatening cardiac episodes are preventable.
Among the itinerary for the Go Red for Women Luncheon will be the opportunity for attendees to “meet” local survivors of cardiac events. Their stories may sound similar to yours or someone you know. That’s not by design, it’s reality. Each has bravely retold the most vulnerable and terrifying moments of her life in order to make a difference for others.
These are their stories. This is how they “go red.” How will you?
Little Rock native Catherine Biggers was busy living a full life in Phoenix. She’ll be the first to say a heart attack was not in her plans.
She was playing tennis with a friend one late July afternoon in 2020 — at the height of pandemic — when she suddenly felt as if someone was tightly squeezing her arm. As she continued to play, the left side of her chest felt as if it were being crushed. Biggers played on, assuming her symptoms were heat-related.
Then she began to sweat profusely, much more than what should be considered normal for tennis on a hot July day. “I must have begun to look ill because my tennis partner asked if I was OK,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Yes,’ and carried on.”
The pain worsened, and she took a break, but the symptoms wouldn’t go away. She drove herself home. Her symptoms came and went until she went to bed. Then, Biggers awoke at 4 a.m. in excruciating pain and decided it was time to go to the emergency room. (The AHA recommends calling 911 at the first signs of a heart attack.)
She was diagnosed as having a unique kind of heart attack called a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD), or the result of spontaneous tearing in the coronary artery wall. Patients are often women who are otherwise healthy, with few or no risk factors for heart disease.
Biggers remained in the ICU for three days and was sent home with medication and pamphlets of information. Her heart is healing, but she is still trying to wrap her mind around what happened.
“I was determined to find answers and help others,” Biggers says. “It was clear to me more research is needed and awareness had to be raised.”
Doctors noticed that Miracle Diaz had a hole in her heart during a prenatal ultrasound. The news was alarming, but her parents were told the problem would fix itself before Miracle’s birth. She was born without complications, and her family assumed all was well.
One morning when she was 3, Miracle started getting sick and began to turn blue, but once she arrived at the hospital the symptoms were gone. An ER doctor said he heard a heart murmur and recommended she get an echocardiogram to further check her heart.
Her family was stunned to hear their little girl needed open-heart surgery. The holes in her heart would need to be repaired. There was extra blood being pumped into the lung arteries, which makes the heart and lungs work harder.
The day before Miracle’s surgery, her blood work showed she had a virus, and the surgery would need to be rescheduled. The procedure ended up being rescheduled three times, but on July 13, 2018, doctors patched the largest hole in her heart.
Just seven days after surgery, Miracle was released from the hospital to go back home. She has to take medication regularly but has been able to reduce the number of medications from 15 to just five. She also has been cleared for check-ups annually instead of every six months. Her family says they got through the experience by staying strong in their faith, and it reminds them to live life to the fullest every day.
Suzette Didier remembers waking up on Dec. 7, 2013, after a snowy night. Later in the day, she decided to exercise, and that’s the last memory she had for seven weeks.
Didier had experienced a stroke. She was found unresponsive, and she was rushed to the hospital. She had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke — or a brain bleed — along with multiple complications. This type of stroke makes up about 13 percent of stroke cases. She had bleeding on her brain, which was causing seizures. She also had experienced an aneurysm. About 5 percent of the population experiences a cerebral aneurysm. They occur when the wall of a blood vessel in the brain becomes weakened and bulges or balloons out. Doctors performed a cranial drill and placed a shunt to control the pressure in her brain and cauterized the aneurysm. From there, she began her long road to recovery.
During that time, Didier was in and out of a coma, she received therapy to learn how to speak, swallow and walk and focused on helping the right side of her body recover — the side impacted by her stroke.
Didier also lost part of her memory, and still to this day doesn’t recall her time in the hospital.
She moved to an inpatient clinic, focusing on regaining writing skills, her attention span and her short-term memory. She couldn’t drive for an entire year afterward.
In February 2014, she was finally able to return home, but that wasn’t the end of her journey. She continued therapy both in hospital and at home, she had regular checkups and needed a steroid shot to help with mobility in her right shoulder. Didier works part-time now and has continued her recovery. She attributes early intervention to saving her life.
Amber Edwards received her diagnosis when she was pregnant. For years, she had problems of feeling winded easily and often experiencing shortness of breath. When she was pregnant, the stress the pregnancy added to her body caused problems with her heart rate. Without warning sometimes, her heart would race, or other times her heart rate would drastically slow. She passed out often. She felt drained of energy all the time.
Edwards saw a cardiologist who tried several medications to help. When the symptoms subsided after her first baby was delivered, she thought most of the problems had been resolved.
However, while carrying her second child, the symptoms returned and were even more severe. Her heart rate would suddenly jump to 200 beats per minute. She was referred to a different cardiologist who determined — after many tests — that Edwards had mitral valve regurgitation and supraventricular tachycardia (SVT).
Not long after delivering her son, Amber had her first heart ablation — which would remove a small area of tissue that caused irregular heartbeats. She has had two more ablations and another exploratory surgery that helped show doctors how to map pathways in her heart to fix the irregular heartbeat.
Edwards takes medication daily to help stabilize her heart rhythm. She knows that there will always be a chance that doctors will tell her she needs a pacemaker. While she still experiences times of feeling winded, she doesn’t let her diagnosis control her life. She wants other women to know that your health story may include some hurdles, but the key is having determination bigger than any obstacle in your way.
Lisa Gaddy lost both her father and her sister to heart disease within less than a year, but when she started experiencing symptoms of her own, they didn’t raise any red flags. At first, she assumed her feelings were those of depression.
However, months later she kept having bouts of dizziness and difficulty breathing. It was time for a checkup.
Gaddy’s heart looked enlarged, so she was referred to a cardiologist. The initial plan was to have a cardiac stress test and an echo — but before the stress test could be done, doctors asked her if there was anyone she’d like to call to join her during a consultation.
Gaddy was in congestive heart failure. In fact, she had an ejection fraction (EF) of just 17 percent. (EF is a measurement of how much blood is being pumped through the body.) A measurement of 40 percent or below is considered reduced, and symptoms may be noticeable even during rest. Gaddy was stunned. She had just turned 40 years old.
She had a pacemaker and defibrillator implanted just three weeks after that appointment. The device, paired with medication, helped give her greater stamina, and her heart maintained the EF of 17 percent for a decade.
In fall 2015, those sluggish and dizzy feelings came back — so Gaddy made an appointment. Her EF had decreased to just 10 percent. She met with the transplant team and created a comprehensive lifestyle plan, which included new medications, as well as dietary changes and regular exercise. She started feeling better in a few weeks. She’s maintained those adjustments, and her EF has remained steady.
Gaddy’s heart failure has not kept her from living a full life. She loves to travel with friends and family and being a wife, mother and coach.
Katie Lea’s heart story began when she was just a toddler. During a routine checkup, her primary care physician heard a heart murmur. At the time, the doctor advised that the situation would be monitored, and if the murmur didn’t resolve on its own, Lea would be referred to a specialist. Her heart murmur was due to a coarctation of the aorta — a narrowing of the major artery that carries blood to the body. This narrowing affects blood flow to the upper and lower parts of the body and can cause high blood pressure or heart damage.
She had surgery when she was 3 and stayed in the hospital for two weeks after the procedure. While Lea doesn’t personally remember all the details of what happened to her, she has a permanent reminder. The surgery left a scar on her chest — a “zipper,” as many heart patients refer to it. To help reduce the stigma of the scar, Katie’s mother gave one of her dolls a similar mark.
While her memories of the recovery aren’t as clear, the love and support her family received from their community is something she still holds dear. Lea believes that sense of giving back led her to choose a career in nursing.
Michelle Rupp’s diagnosis came in December 2005, however, she had been experiencing episodes of her heart “racing” since she was 9 years old. Sporadically and without warning, her heart would race, at times beating as much as 300 beats per minute. Extreme chest, jaw and arm pain would accompany such an irregular beat. The beating was so fast you could feel it by placing your hand on her chest. Rupp’s pediatrician surmised this was her body’s way of dealing with stress. Still, doctors never caught the episode in the moment, so there were no definitive answers.
Without a diagnosis and subsequent solution, Rupp handled the racing heart as best she could. Generally, the episodes would force her to sit down and get still. They would run their course, lasting 30-60 seconds, at times longer, before her heart would convert back into a normal rhythm on its own. After finishing a 5K on that December day in 2005, Rupp knew something was different. The episode lasted more than an hour, and she went to the hospital. When the nurse took her vitals, her heart rate was 208 beats per minute. While being whisked away to a room, the nurse explained they needed to stop her heart and restart it in the proper rhythm.
After the reset, it was determined she had Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome. She had too many electrical pathways for her heart to receive the signal to beat. When the signals got crossed, her heart would race. On April 7, 2006, doctors cauterized her heart to sever those extra pathways, thus curing her.
Still a runner, Rupp has successfully completed 18 marathons, one 50k and numerous half marathons since that procedure.
Jennifer Siccardi was getting ready for bed one late October night in 2017 when she started experiencing pronounced chest pain. Since she suffers from acid reflux, both she and her husband assumed that was the culprit. The pain was severe, but when she woke up the next morning she felt fine.
Over the next few days, she experienced the same symptoms of chest cramps and weakness whenever she ate. Finally, she sought help at an urgent care clinic and, eventually, the emergency room.
Siccardi was diagnosed with coronary artery disease, a condition in which plaque grows within the walls of the arteries and restricts blood flow to the heart’s muscles.
Doctors in the emergency room told her she would be getting a stent put in her heart to open the artery to allow better blood flow. Once the procedure was finished, her husband shared that days before, when they both had assumed she had suffered from reflux, she had in fact experienced a heart attack.
These days, Siccardi is doing well. She sees her doctor every few months and makes sure to exercise regularly and monitor her diet. No additional surgeries are on the horizon.
Siccardi is passionate about educating all those around her about heart disease. She stresses that if something feels off, people should check with their doctor and not try to diagnose themselves.
Lucy Street’s heart story began before she was born. During a prenatal checkup, doctors noticed Lucy’s heart was slightly enlarged.
Further tests showed that she had severe Ebstein’s Anomaly, a condition in which a heart valve doesn’t work properly and may leak. If the valve leaks, some of the blood pumped by the right ventricle goes back through the valve with each heartbeat. The valve on Lucy’s right side is so inferiorly displaced that her right ventricle barely functions.
After birth, Lucy had difficulty breathing and experienced frequent arrhythmias. She remained in the hospital until her first surgery at just 2 months old. This removed the wall between her two atriums.
The first year of her life was a whirlwind for her family as they learned new terminology, medicine, starting physical and occupational therapy and a second heart surgery at 6 months old. This procedure rerouted her blood flow and helped increase her blood/oxygen level.
Lucy had a third surgery, the Fontan Procedure, a type of open-heart surgery to make the blood from the lower part of the body go directly to the lungs. This lets the blood pick up oxygen without having to pass through the heart. There were complications, but nothing they couldn’t overcome.
She has had several arrhythmia issues since, with a couple hospital stays to adjust medications, but her parents believe she’s on the mend.
When spending time with her, it’s easy to forget her heart functions differently than other 4-year-olds. Lucy’s family sees her scars as beautiful reminders of where the family has been and to be thankful for every moment together.
Go Red for Women Luncheon, presented by Saline Health System
• Thursday, June 24
Noon – 1 p.m.
Go Red for Women Auction
• June 21 to June 24
For more information, visit heart.org