Lilly Rocha was a high achiever who thought little of her workaholic schedule.
"I kept two suitcases packed at all times, so I could just fly home, pick up a suitcase and leave right away," she said.
One morning, while at home, Lilly woke up with severe jaw and chest pain and numbness on the left side of her body. Despite the discomfort, she decided to go to work. When a coworker suggested she could be having a heart attack and should go to a hospital, she didn’t believe him. A heart attack survivor himself, he didn’t take no for an answer and drove her to the ER.
Lilly, then 37, knew something was wrong but didn’t think a heart attack was possible and told her coworker to simply drop her off.
"I told him, ‘Don’t worry about me, because that’s what we do as women,’" she said. "I kept downplaying my symptoms."
When Lilly finally saw a doctor a few hours later and learned how serious her condition was, she was shocked. She spent a few days in the hospital and returned to work two weeks later, struggling to make sense of what happened. It took two years for her to recover from the recurrent angina and the emotional toll of her heart attack.
Doctors still aren’t sure what caused Lilly to have a heart attack, though they believe it’s likely a genetic link. Lilly’s grandfather had died of a heart attack at age 37—the same age she had a heart attack. She also learned later that nearly everyone in her mom’s family had heart disease, was struggling with high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and in one case, required bypass surgery.
Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of women. It claims more women’s lives than all forms of cancer combined, according to a 2019 report from the American Heart Association, “Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics,” published in the journal Circulation (Jan. 31, 2019). Research shows heart attacks are on the rise in younger women and new data from a study published in the American Heart Association’s Circulation (Feb. 19, 2019) suggests younger generations of women, Gen Z and Millennials, are less likely to be aware of their greatest health threat and know heart attack and stroke warning signs.
“I didn’t have a clue what was going on,” Lilly said. “Looking back, all the symptoms were there. But you don’t expect to have a heart attack at 37.”
As an ambassador for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement, Lilly shares her story to inspire women to take charge of their health and encourage others to do the same.
In celebration of Heart Month, Go Red for Women encourages women to take these heart-healthy steps:
+ Be Aware. Starting at age 20, get screened for CVD risk factors. Know your numbers—the key personal health numbers that help determine risk for heart disease: total cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and body mass index. Know your family history and talk to your doctor about heart disease.
+ Live Well. Even modest lifestyle changes can lower risk by as much as 80%. Make living a healthy lifestyle a priority by moving more, eating smart and managing blood pressure. Track your physical activity, diet and blood pressure through Check. Change. Control.
+ Make an Impact. More research is needed to find new ways to treat, beat and prevent heart disease in women. Participating in research has never been easier or more important. Research Goes Red puts women in the driver’s seat to accelerate scientific discovery by contributing to health research through clinical trials, surveys, focus groups and more.
+ Go Red on Wear Red Day, Feb. 5. Wear red to take a stand against cardiovascular disease and spread the word.
For over 17 years, Go Red for Women has been a trusted, passionate and relevant force for change to eradicate heart disease and stroke in women. It is committed to the health and well-being of women at every life stage and to removing the barriers women face to living a full, healthy life.
Learn more at GoRedForWomen.org.