By Zinta Aistars
AHA’s Real Women represent the different faces of heart disease and stroke nationwide and hope that by sharing their story, other women will be inspired to make a change and share their personal stories as well.
Bette Rodecwald• Age 80|Heart Disease Prevention
It was a cold winter night, but the ladies gathered at White River Yoga in Montague seemed warm inside the beautiful old store that had been repurposed into a yoga studio.
The instructor, Bette Rodewald had worked with most of the women in attendance for a long time, and her classes never disappointed. For those who don’t know Rodewald personally, it might come as a surprise that this agile teacher, who leads four classes a week, just turned 80 years old.
Rodewald has always taken the public’s needs to heart. Prior to becoming a yoga instructor, she worked as a cardio pulmonary rehab nurse for Mercy Health Center assisting and monitoring patients who had experienced a cardiac event. After 15 years, Rodewald retired to spend more time with her family and focus her energy on yoga.
“When I started in Muskegon with cardiac nursing, it used to seem like only the men were having heart attacks and needed stents. Then we starting seeing more and more women who had heart issues and cardiac issues.” Rodewald said. “To me, it emphasized that if you don’t exercise and take care of yourself, everyone is at a high risk of heart disease.”
When yoga first became popular in the late 60s, Rodewald was invited to a class by a neighbor. Her response was, “Sure, I’ll go–what is yoga?” After discovering the relaxing, strengthening and meditative properties of yoga, she made it a regular part of her routine. Later in her career, Mercy Health asked her to start a series of small yoga classes for some of the rehab patients she cared for.
“With my nursing background, I could teach the patients the muscle systems they were using in poses as they slowly moved from one pose to another,” Rodewald explained. “They would gain strength and flexibility and we would use much-needed relaxation techniques at the end of the classes.”
Rodewald made a conscious decision to stay healthy and active throughout her life and has seen first-hand the devastating effects brought about
by ignoring health and avoiding physical exercise.
“I never really retired,” she admitted. “My children tease me that I just moved from one job to another!”
Age isn’t a concern for Rodewald and she has no plans to slow down. She’s exactly where she’d like to be–helping others gain strength and understanding through yoga.
Tracy Hover • Heart Disease Survivor “Listen To Your Heart”
Tracy Hover was enjoying a “couch potato” moment, sitting back and sipping coffee. It wasn’t her usual behavior—she enjoyed running and being active. In fact,
she was training for a 10K run later
that year, in 2015. Then it happened: chest pains.
“I felt pain down my arms, in my chest, and between my shoulder blades, and I did exactly what I had told thousands of other people not to do,” Hover says. “I ignored it.”
Hover knew better because, for 25 years, she had worked as a paramedic in Grand Rapids, was a long-time supporter of the American Heart Association, and for the past seven years, she worked in cardiovascular research. All her career, she had been telling patients and friends “do not ignore chest pains.”
“The chest pains continued off and on for the next couple of days,” Hover says. “So I asked a colleague at work to do me a favor and run an EKG.”
The results of the EKG was abnormal, and Hover called a cardiologist at Spectrum Health. A stress test came back as “mildly suspicious.” Hover’s cardiologist was befuddled, as she did not fit the typical heart disease patient profile. She did, however, have a family history of heart disease.
“I work with cardiologists in different hospitals as part of my job,” Hover says. “I was at Borgess Medical Center when I heard about a clinical study being done there, for people with a family history like mine.”
Hover participated in the study, and as part of that study, she had bloodwork and a 64-slice cardiac CT scan done. She was stunned when the results indicated a left atrial myxoma, a benign tumor inside her heart’s left atrium and attached to the septum.
While Hover’s cardiologist described the tumor as non-cancerous, it did put her at extreme risk for stroke. She underwent open-heart surgery. The tumor, the size of a golf ball, was removed, and Hover recovered quickly.
“I’m told it takes twelve months to recover from open-heart surgery, but I was jogging again before six months,” Hover admits. “You have to use common sense. If you feel punky, take it easy for a couple of days.”
Hover relearned the lessons she has been teaching others for years. Listen to your heart.
“If you have chest pains, do NOT ignore them!” she says. “And participate in clinical studies, if possible. Clinical studies accomplish great things. This one saved my life.”
Dr. Betty Dennis • Stroke Survivor
In 2014, Dr. Betty Dennis found herself maintaining a very high-pressured job. Engulfed in a demanding atmosphere each day, Dennis became more stressed than she’d ever been. She thought she could handle it.
Although Dennis, a married mother of three, had shown no symptoms of heart disease when she visited the doctor’s office, on August 2, 2014, she later suffered a stroke.
“I was at my church for a meeting, and suddenly my arm gave out,” Dennis recalls. “I told the congregation members near me that I was having a stroke.”
Dennis recognized what was happening to her body because of another church meeting she had attended. Mount Zion Baptist Church had recently invited a speaker from the American Heart Association to talk about the symptoms of a stroke using the acronym FAST–Facial drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulties and Time to call emergency services.
“By the time people had helped me to the middle of the room, I had collapsed,” Dennis said.
She was immediately taken to Bronson Methodist Hospital and held for three days. Once stable, Dennis went through intensive rehabilitation at Borgess Medical Center, followed by outpatient therapy. Eventually, she began working out daily at the Living Well Fitness Center.
“I’m still working out, now at the ‘Y,’” she said. “It takes time to heal. I still use exercises from speech therapy. I have partial paralysis on my right side, I have a severe limp, and I am unable to use my right hand.”
Despite the issues brought about by her stroke, Dennis leans on her faith and remains confident that she will regain her abilities. She has returned to teaching at Western Michigan University but is much more aware of how much stress her body can handle. She has learned when to turn down overtime requests and extra demands.
“Being educated about stroke symptoms is so important,” Dennis emphasized. “It’s also important to make exercise a part of your daily lifestyle, and not just aerobic, but also strengthening.”
She now shares her story with everyone who will listen. She mentioned that her journey of recovery is not one she would have chosen, but she believes it is a mission her faith has assigned to her—to encourage people to get to know their bodies, recognize symptoms and stay healthy.
“Stroke can happen to anyone,” Dennis cautioned. “I want people to listen to their bodies. It can save a life.”
Sarah Porter • Age 25 | Stroke Survivor
Sarah Porter was a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Maine when she felt dizzy and disoriented during class. Her arm felt tingly and she found it hard to string words together, both common stroke symptoms.
At the hospital, Porter’s symptoms were dismissed as anxiety before a doctor recognized that she was having a stroke. She spent the next few months at home in Presque Isle, Maine undergoing therapy to regain strength, the ability to walk and her short and long-term memory.
Four years later, Porter was in her
final semester of a master’s degree in public health at Columbia University in New York when she experienced the same symptoms she had during the
This time, Porter was able to tell the hospital nurse she was having a stroke and shared her medical history and was immediately treated. Two weeks later, Porter returned to Maine to undergo brain surgery.
Recovery was difficult. Porter had
to regain her speech, control of her right arm and overcome memory issues, including dyslexia. A brain infection required a second surgery and additional therapy.
Inspired by her experiences, Porter pursued a career in public health helping others make lifestyle changes that minimize risks for heart disease and stroke and how to recognize symptoms when they occur.
“Stroke can happen at any age, even if you are young, healthy and active,” Porter said.“I remember feeling embarrassed and that I was somehow defective. I want to inspire young people and let them know they aren’t alone.”
Porter began volunteering with the American Heart Association in 2014, lobbying for more research funding and legislative support for heart and stroke health issues as well as participating in Go Red For Women events. She shared her story with members of Congress only weeks after her brain surgery.
Symptoms of a heart attack:
- Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back.
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
- Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort.
- Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
As with men, the most common heart attack symptom in women is chest pain or discomfort. It’s important to note that women are more likely to experience other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
What to do during a heart attack
If you experience any of these signs or symptoms:
- Do not wait to call for help. Dial 9-1-1, make sure to follow the operator’s instructions and get to a hospital right away.
- Do not drive yourself or have someone drive you to the hospital unless you have no other choice.
- Try to stay as calm as possible and take deep, slow breaths while you wait for the emergency responders.
Why it’s important to know the symptoms of a heart attack
Women who consider themselves healthy often misdiagnose the symptoms of a heart attack because they don’t think it could happen to them. That is why it’s crucial to learn about heart disease and stroke, know your numbers, live a heart-healthy lifestyle and be aware of the risk factors of heart disease.
Signs that you may be having a stroke:
- Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
- Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
- Sudden trouble seeing or blurred vision in one or both eyes
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
- Sudden severe headache with no known cause
You should never wait more than five minutes to dial 9-1-1 if you experience any of the signs above. Remember, you could be having a stroke even if you’re not experiencing all of the symptoms. And remember to check the time. The responding emergency medical technician or ER nurse at the hospital will need to know when the first symptom occurred.
Spot a Stroke F.A.S.T
Face Drooping, Arm Weakness, Speech Difficult, Time to Call 911