Jo CromartieDirector of Marketing, Development, and Gift Compliance
As with many health concerns, heart conditions do not come with a look and in my case no predeterminants either. This month is Heart Health Month and I would like to share my story.
Fresh out of college, new job, weighing no more than a “buck-o-five soak and wet”, I learned that I was pregnant with my first child. Like most new mothers, I recall buying all the books, taking all the advice (solicited and unsolicited), and committing myself to a happy and healthy pregnancy. With fairly decent insurance, I’d entered into the managed care system. During that time, managed care was a new healthcare system in my home state of North Carolina. I absolutely loved the concept of all needs being met as a one-stop shop. What I found interesting though was that while I was assigned an OB-GYN, I never saw the same one during my pregnancy. Maybe that is considered common practice, but it most certainly was not best practice as noted in the subsequent events that occurred during childbirth. I will spare you those details for a separate blog post regarding maternal comorbidity and mortality rates among Black women, but for now I’ll stay on topic for heart health.
October 5, 1998, I gave birth to a healthy baby. A couple days later, I was diagnosed with peripartum cardiomyopathy (PPCM) resulting in congestive heart failure. Unfortunately, I would spend the next several weeks in the hospital fighting to be the mother I had dreamed of. PPCM is a rare form of cardiomyopathy that occurs in late pregnancy or during the postpartum period that presents in the absence of other identifiable characteristics of heart failure (Peripartum Cardiomyopathy – StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf (nih.gov)).
For several years I would not discuss my congestive heart failure. It may sound weird to some, but I was a bit ashamed. Some twenty plus years later, I still remember quite vividly the encounter I had with the nurse at the front desk of my cardiologist. The nurse, an older Black woman called me to the front and in the most motherly voice whispered to me, “Baby, look around you…you too young to be in here with these folks, you’re going to have to take care of yourself.” While her very words would later become my mantra, at that time, it felt like chastisement. I would often ruminate on the past steps I took to ensure a happy and healthy pregnancy. I wondered what I had done wrong, what I could have done better, what I’d missed—I had failed. During that time, I did not know that this rare condition has a higher prevalence rate in the southern U.S. than in other regions. Just as alarming, peripartum cardiomyopathy affects Black women more often and more severely than those who are not. As with most occurrences, through faith and self-determination, I willed my way out of those thoughts for the betterment of my life and my child’s.
The silver lining in all of this is that while I will always have congestive heart failure, it is important that I continue taking the necessary steps to prevent it from becoming an acute condition. Those steps include daily light exercise, watching what I eat, and monitoring portion control. I am also happy to report that I have been discharged from my cardiologist and for now am no longer on any medication.
My absolute favorite poem is Mother to Son by Langston Hughes. To my son’s delight, I would often recite it over and over to him, starting in the most authentic southern voice, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair…” I will say though, that my condition has become my badge of honor, my mark of survival and I will continue to live a heart healthy lifestyle every day. Most importantly, I will continue to share my story to all who want to know. Achieving health equity is a must and I am proud to be a vocal disruption alongside my PSE family.
Jo Cromartie is the contributor to this month’s blog in honor of Heart Health Month. She works as the Director of Marketing, Development, and Gift Compliance at PSE.
American Heart Month is the perfect time to pause to take care of our hearts, and the heart health of family, friends, and communities.
Risk factors for heart disease and stroke are high blood pressure, high low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, diabetes, smoking and secondhand smoke exposure, obesity, unhealthy diet, and physical inactivity. Given these risk factors the threat of cardiovascular disease touches almost every family.
As the leading cause of death in America, the statistics for African Americans are even more alarming. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, African Americans are 30% more likely to die from heart disease than non-white Hispanics; Black men have a 70% higher risk of heart failure compared to white men; Black women have a 50% higher risk of heart failure compared to white women; and Black adults are more than twice as likely as white adults to be hospitalized for heart failure.
Learn more about American Heart Month by visiting these links:
The Heart Foundation www.theheartfoundation.org
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) www.cdc.gov
Black Women’s Health Imperative www.bwhi.org
Health Partners www.healthpartners.com
Million Hearts www.millionhearts.hhs.gov