The day 52-year-old Diane Brown had a heart attack, she had biked the seven miles to work from Middleton to Madison - even taking a new employee down the lakeshore trail to the Memorial Union for a cheeseburger lunch with Babcock ice cream.
But back at her University of Wisconsin-Madison Transportation Services office later that afternoon, Brown began sweating profusely during a meeting. Intense pain shot through her back, and as she got up to go to the bathroom to collect herself, she had to grab the wall to avoid passing out.
"My back was killing me - I was sweating bullets, and I felt like I was going to faint," recalls Brown (pictured). "I really had no idea what was happening."
When a co-worker took her to the emergency room a few blocks away at University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, Brown was told she was having a heart attack. She immediately fell into a state of denial, even as she was being wheeled into the Cath Lab to have a stent placed in her main artery, which was completely blocked.
"That's impossible," Brown told the emergency room staff. "I'm only 52 years old!"
Recalling the life-altering journey she has taken in the year since her heart attack, Brown remembers thinking that this wasn't supposed to be happening to her. Though the men in her family have been prone to heart disease, Brown always thought it was "a guy thing."
Heart Disease - Not Just "A Guy Thing"
But Brown soon learned the most important lesson of her life - that not only can heart disease affect women, it does. In fact, heart disease is the no. 1 killer of American women, according to the American Heart Association. More women than men die from cardiovascular diseases each year.
That was a shock to Brown, who likens her heart attack experience to "getting hit with a 2x4" in the middle of her forehead. But Aug. 17, 2005 was also the day Brown began a new chapter in her life - living with heart disease.
With the help of UW Health's Preventive Cardiology program, Brown has learned to take care of her heart through lifestyle changes involving proper nutrition, exercise, and controlling risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol.
The UW Health team of preventive cardiology experts provides treatment and multidisciplinary medical advice both for people who do not have heart disease, as well as those who have a history of heart disease - including heart attack, bypass surgery or other treatment of blocked arteries, stroke and blocked arteries in the legs.
A New, Heart-Healthy Lifestyle
For Brown, this meant completely changing her lifestyle and making radically different choices each day. She hasn't had a cheeseburger since her heart attack on August 17, 2005. She uses her lunch hour to exercise on the elliptical, she plays golf at least three times a week and also does back-strengthening exercise and weight training. Her husband, Jeff, helps by exercising with her and watching what he eats, as well.
Brown still rides her bike to work as she did before her heart attack, but she now also pays close attention to what she eats, which she had never done before.
She's lost 40 pounds in the past year and has managed to keep the weight off through regular exercise and a heart-healthy food attitude that has helped her to consume fewer than 15 grams of saturated fat per day.
"I have done absolutely everything the doctors, cardiologist, physiologist, nutritionist, rehab counselors, and anyone else with a stethoscope or medical badge told me to do," Brown says.
She's such a model heart disease patient, in fact, that Brown attending the Science and Leadership Symposium for Women Heart Patients, co-sponsored by the Mayo Clinic and WomenHeart, the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease.
The national, highly selective program's goal is to promote early detection, accurate diagnosis and proper treatment for women with heart disease - turning females with heart disease into advocates within their own communities.
Inspiring Change in Others
Brown is excited about possibilities to inspire other women to make positive changes in their lives - only earlier than she did.
"If I had started the 'healthy heart' approach at age 20, maybe I would not have had a heart attack at age 52," Brown says.
Like the WomenHeart organization, Brown also hopes to decrease the sense of isolation many female heart disease sufferers feel, dealing with a condition that's grossly mischaracterized as "a guy thing."
Brown notes that when she was undergoing cardiac rehabilitation after her heart attack, most of the other participants were retired men over 60. Then, when she would go to the UW Natatorium over her lunch hours to work out, most of her fellow exercisers were young college athletes - or, as Brown jokingly calls them, "lean, mean sweating machines."
"Somewhere between the young college students and the old retirees lies the 'great expanse of heart awareness need' that should be tapped," says Brown, who was the third UW Health Preventive Cardiology patient in the last three years to attend the Mayo/WomenHeart symposium.
Brown hopes to come up with ideas to tap this "great expanse," making an impact on those who may be "unaware and destined for an unhealthy heart."
"That would be my goal - reaching those who think this will never happen to them," Brown says.
A Star Student
At UW Health's Preventive Cardiology program, Brown is viewed as a star student whose tenacity, good humor and determination serve as a model for other heart disease patients.
"Since she's known she had heart disease, Diane has done everything possible to lower her risk of future heart problems," says Vonda Shaw, senior clinical exercise physiologist in the Preventive Cardiology program.
Shaw recalls the first day Brown came to Preventive Cardiology, armed with a bag full of food labels that represented her regular dietary regimen.
"Her interest was there, right from the beginning, in terms of, 'What can I do to help myself?'" says Shaw.
Shaw adds that she's particularly impressed with Brown's desire to prevent heart disease in other women, as well.
"She's someone who has said, 'Here's what life has dealt me. Now, what active steps can I take to not only help myself, but how can I also help others?'" Shaw says. "That's truly an amazing thing."