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Sister's death a wake-up call for heart health

Yolanda Thompson

On July 27, 2008, I received that phone call no one ever expects: My husband was on the phone telling me to get to the airport because doctors were saying my sister wasn't going to make it.

Scared to fly but even more terrified of the reality I was being forced to face, I boarded the first of three flights to return to Wichita to see my sister — my best friend — motionless and unresponsive with tubes everywhere.

The doctor came in and requested that the family come to the quiet room to discuss her diagnosis and prognosis, as well as to ask the question that still haunts us to this day: Why did Lisa stop taking her blood pressure medicine?

Nine days later, my 34-year-old sister’s heart stopped. Her cause of death: Heart disease and hypertension. This silent killer had claimed yet another victim, my sister and the mother of a 3-year-old son.

Grief, then hope

After my sister’s death, my weight skyrocketed and I, too, was diagnosed with hypertension. But the sad part is, I was still grieving and didn’t care. 

As if losing my sister wasn’t enough, my husband suffered a heart attack in 2012 that almost ended his life. And in 2014, I went to the ER with chest pain thinking I might be next.

I wasn’t ready to leave my adult daughters — my babies — and I wanted to be around for my grandson as well, who now is 4 years old. I didn’t think anything would change my life or my frame of mind until a year later, when a co-worker encouraged me to try out for the casting call for the American Heart Association’s Better U Makeover Challenge.  

I thought to myself, “If I could be one of the ones chosen, I could honor Lisa’s memory by telling our family story.” I was hopeful it would encourage other women to take care of their hearts, bodies, minds and spirits.

I was so surprised when I received the call that I had made it and I would be one of 14 women to accept this challenge and embrace this amazing program. I already know I’m sexy — just ask anyone who knows me. That’s my personality and how I feel about myself, but I knew I wasn’t healthy.

Having diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol was leading my heart in the wrong direction, and the Better U program encouraged me to listen to my heart and, most of all, do something to save it. I met 13 of the most courageous and beautiful women on this journey. I also got to work with personal trainers from the Wichita YMCA.

Our group bonded and formed a sisterhood that helped us to hold each other accountable. We also gave each other the encouragement we needed to endure — no matter how hard the challenges. We started our journey in February 2015 and ended the formal part of the program in June.

A changed life

I shed a lot of tears and pounds to get to where I am today.

I don’t dread exercise anymore. I embrace it. I never thought I would get out of my warm bed at 4:30 in the morning and head to the Y four to five times a week, or run over myself to get to a Zumba class. Even though I can’t swim, I braved the cold pool to discover that Water Tabata is awesome. I’ve eaten more vegetables and read more food labels than I ever have in my life. I really enjoy shopping, especially now that I don't wear the same size of clothes anymore.

Most of all, I’m on the road to no longer taking medicine for high blood pressure.

I encourage you to take a moment and place your hand over your heart, feel its beats and listen. What is your heart saying to you? Don’t let your heart be silenced prematurely. Get out there and exercise and eat right.

Most of all, if you are prescribed medication, take it. Don’t take matters of your heart and health into your own hands. Listen to your doctor — and listen to your heart!

About Yolanda Thompson

Yolanda Thompson is an insurance verifier with Ascension Via Christi.