Attorney, author, and original co-host of “The View” turned American Heart Association National Volunteer Star Jones knows heart disease well — she survived (and thrived) after having open heart surgery in 2010. Now she’s using her platform to raise awareness of the fact that heart disease is the leading killer of Americans, and that it disproportionately affects Black women.
Could you tell us a little about your heart health journey?
In the fall of 2009, I found myself experiencing some unnerving symptoms. I was really tired, and not in the “I’ve had a busy day” sort of way, but rather I felt absolutely exhausted. I was short of breath. I would get light-headed if I went from seated to standing too quickly. And I was also experiencing frequent and intense heart palpitations. Suffice it to say: I was alarmed.
Remember, I’d undergone successful weight loss surgery in 2003. I was eating right and exercising. I was in the best shape of my adult life. I was finally in tune with my body and my health, so I knew something wasn’t right.
I decided to go see my cardiologist, and after extensive testing, I was diagnosed with heart disease in 2010 and told I needed open-heart surgery. Honestly, I was floored. I didn’t think heart disease happened to newly in shape, “young-ish” Black women. But, just like that, a Black woman in her late 40s became the face of heart disease.
I wasn’t aware at the time, but heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans, and that holds true even during the ongoing COVID pandemic. Black Americans, and specifically Black women, are at even greater risk.
Luckily, I came through open-heart surgery without any complications. That was a blessing, and thanks, in part, to scientific advancement funded by the American Heart Association. As part of my recovery, I elected to do cardiac rehab, which was one of the best decisions of my life.
The 24 sessions over three months were grueling, but so worth it in building back my strength and confidence. Open-heart surgery might have saved my life, but cardiac rehab gave me my life back. After surgery, I called the American Heart Association and committed to lending my voice and platform to bringing awareness to heart health, and have been doing so for more than a decade.
So, while, yes, I’m a heart disease survivor, I prefer heart disease thriver because some of my greatest achievements came after open-heart surgery.
What role did gastric bypass surgery play in your health journey?
After some tough love from a close girlfriend about the state of my health, and specifically my weight, I realized I needed to take back control of my life after being obese or morbidly obese for much of my adult life. So, in 2003, I made the decision to get healthy. For me, the first step on that journey was accepting responsibility for my own actions, and the next was getting control of my weight.
Ultimately, that decision saved my life, and though I didn’t know it at the time, it ensured I’d be healthy enough to undergo open-heart surgery years later. Gastric bypass surgery jump started my road to health, but changing my overall lifestyle has helped me maintain a 150-pound weight loss for some 18 years now.
How did you come to the decision that open-heart surgery was for you?
You could think of my open-heart surgery as preventative in that it was needed to repair an issue that could have become an emergency down the line. But I didn’t really have a choice, even if I wanted to believe that I did. In fact, following my diagnosis, I booked a trip to the beach and tried to put my head in the sand, literally.
But my family and friends talked some sense into me. I made the decision to move forward because I’d made the choice several years prior to get — and stay — healthy, and so I wasn’t about to stop. In fact, there were a myriad of issues ailing my heart. There was fluid buildup. My aortic valve wasn’t functioning properly. And, specifically, open-heart surgery was required to repair my aortic valve in hopes of staving off the need for valve replacement surgery or, worse, a heart transplant down the line.
In surgery, doctors stopped my heart for 22 minutes on the operating table, but restarted it, and it’s been ticking along just fine ever since.
What do you wish you knew more about as a young woman when it comes to heart health?
The truth is, heart disease wasn’t even on my radar, but it should have been. My family history screamed heart disease; in fact, I’m a fifth-generation heart disease survivor.
I also wished I’d known that making healthy choices — even small ones — at an early age can form good habits, and often those habits stick with you. In short: it’s never too early to make healthy choices, and your future self will thank you for it. Your health is your greatest asset because without good health, you can’t really do much else. And as the proverb says, “For they who have health have hope, and they who have hope have everything.”
Like many other health issues, heart disease and obesity disproportionately affect Black women. How can we come together to combat this issue?
We’d all like to think reducing the impact of heart disease in our communities is as simple as “eat better, move more.” However, Black Americans continue to experience the highest death rates due to cardiovascular disease and stroke, and structural racism is a driver.
That’s why the American Heart Association (AHA) has committed $230 million to help remove barriers to health equity, and they’ve also committed to publishing more science focused on disparities, anti-racism, and healthy equity in their journals to advance the scientific discourse. Plus, AHA will continue advancing public policies that increase healthcare access, and limit tobacco companies and sugary beverage makers from continuing to target their products to our community.
But we also have to champion a culture of health within our communities; one that celebrates the healthy choice, one that encourages open conversation about family history, one that doesn’t accept that getting diabetes or having a stroke is a normal part of getting old, and that starts by putting heart disease on the front burner.
Awareness of cardiovascular disease as the No. 1 killer of Black women remains a gap to close, and so, first and foremost, we have to ensure more women in our community know heart disease is their leading health threat, and, like me, they are equipped to do something about it.