The heart of the matter

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. It affects more women than men and is more deadly than all cancers combined. (One in 31 American women dies from breast cancer each year.)

Heart disease causes one in three women’s deaths each year, killing about one woman per minute.

90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease.

Since 1984, more women than men have died each year from heart disease. The gap between men and women’s survival continues to widen.

American Heart Association

When funding dried up for her job as a nonprofit’s senior project manager, Keisha Hawes cobbled together several jobs, whatever the college-educated mother could find.

Heart attack symptoms in women

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 or your back, neck, jaw or stomach.

Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort.

Breaking out in a cold sweat.

Nausea or lightheadedness.

American Heart Association

Still, her family’s ends were not getting met.

Heart events

Heart Ball

What: Charleston Heart Ball Art and Wine Auction. Gourmet dinner followed by a live auction spotlighting 15 artists, including featured artist Shannon Runquist.

When: 6 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. dinner Feb. 23:

Where: Charleston Marriott hotel, 170 Lockwood Drive downtown

Price: $250; sponsorship opportunities available

More info: 853-1597 or amanda.haggerty@heart.org.

Paws Go Red

What: Pet Helpers, the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women Campaign and MUSC Heart & Vascular Center team up for heart health screenings for dogs and their owners. Followed by a short walk, dogs will be judged in a costume competition.

When: 1:30-3:30 p.m. Feb. 24

Where: James Island County Park, Wappoo Shelter

Price: Free

More info: Pet Helpers at 795-1110.

Go Red Luncheon

What: Go Red for Women Luncheon. Keynote speaker Dr. Ann Kulze will discuss nutrition, healthy living and disease prevention. Proceeds benefit the American Heart Association’s women and heart disease research and education.

When: 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. April 24

Where: Riviera Theater, 225 King St., Charleston

Price: $125; sponsorship opportunities available

More info: 853-1597

Visit GoRedForWomen.org or GoRedCorazon.org.

To learn about Go Red Women, a group of heart disease survivors and activists, see http://pimsmultimedia.com/GoRed2013/realwomen.php.

So the 31-year-old cut back on things for herself, including her diabetes and hypertension medications. It would just be for a short time. Her husband and their two kids came first.

“As a woman, I was taught that you do what you have to do,” Hawes said. “And that was not necessarily taking care of myself.”

Going without her medications saved nearly $200 a month in co-payments, money she and her already hard-working husband needed to pay the bills.

The West Ashley mother was so harried with work and kids that, at 31, she barely registered the chest pains and shortness of breath.

Seeing red

Been seeing red a lot lately?

The organizers of the American Heart Association’s nationwide Go Red for Women Campaign sure hope so.

As breast cancer has its signature pink, red is the color of heart disease awareness.

If statistics tell truth, the campaign is much needed, especially among women.

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, yet only one in five Americans believes it is their greatest health threat, according to the American Heart Association.

They are women like Hawes, who was adopted and didn’t know her biological family history.

She knew that being overweight was a risk factor. But she carried only about 20 extra pounds on a tall frame.

And despite having diabetes and high blood pressure, she felt physically well.

She didn’t smoke and didn’t drink often.

Sure, she wasn’t taking her medications. And she had been eating more fast food than she should have.

But when things got so busy, she simply had to do what she could.

It’s a common scenario and is why raising awareness of heart disease in women has driven the Go Red for Women campaign for 10 years now, said Robyn Reese, spokeswoman for the Lowcountry American Heart Association chapter.

Earlier in February, everyone from local school students to medical workers wore red to raise awareness, including at MUSC, the local campaign’s major sponsor.

Organizers estimate the Go Red campaign has saved more than 627,000 lives nationwide.

But work remains. Too many women like Hawes put too many things ahead of their own health needs.

“Women tend to put themselves last,” Reese said.

Be positive

It was spring 2011 when Hawes felt chest pains. But they weren’t especially sharp or alarming.

Sometimes, she also couldn’t take a deep breath and felt a bit chilled.

Then it all would pass.

“It was concerning, but I didn’t really have time to think about it,” she said.

Besides, surely it was caused by stress.

The symptoms persisted. Maybe she had an upper respiratory infection.

One night around 11 p.m., she zipped over to Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital’s emergency room. It wasn’t as much out of concern as logistics: Her two kids were asleep and her husband was home from work.

She’d run in, get some antibiotics and be home before they had to go to work and the children to school.

As she drove, she felt chest pain again.

Was it her diabetes? Her high blood pressure?

She waited most of the night in the ER. Nobody seemed terribly concerned.

After all, she was 31. She looked perfectly healthy.

Then a doctor noticed alarming indicators in her vital signs. He sent her to Roper Hospital.

Soon after she arrived, a doctor spoke with her.

“It is evident that you had a heart attack,” he said.

Hawes lay there, stunned.

She was taken to the heart catheterization lab to see if inserting a small tube called a stent would clear the 95 percent blockage of a main coronary artery. If not, she might require heart bypass surgery.

The doctor’s next warning barely registered: The procedure carried a 1 percent chance of causing internal bleeding.

The procedure appeared to go well.

But shortly after it was over, pain throbbed through her, and she felt freezing cold.

Hawes grabbed the doctor’s arm: “Something is wrong.”

She remembers nothing else until she awoke in the intensive-care unit, her normally high blood pressure oddly low. Internal bleeding had sapped enough blood that she would need a transfusion.

Hawes tried not to panic. Instead, she prayed, Please give me a sign of what to do.

A nurse wheeled in a pole with the bag of blood. On the bag was Hawes’ blood type: B positive.

Again, she prayed: I hear you loud and clear. I’m turning this into a positive experience for me and my family.

Stop it here

And so she has. Once she recuperated, Hawes set out to improve her family’s health.

Nearly two years after her heart attack, she eats bran cereal with fiber. She drinks more water and eats fresh or frozen veggies instead of canned.

She also encourages healthier eating choices for her husband, Michael, and children: Mason, 8, and Madison, 7.

“It was a wake-up call for all of us,” Hawes said.

But it isn’t easy. She works at a hotel in downtown Charleston, where the kitchen beckons. And she grew up on a farm, where life revolved around eating, and not always the healthiest foods.

“A big part of being a Southerner is the food,” she said. “And good food is all around me.”

Thankfully, her heart appears healthy now.

An echocardiogram showed no problems. She even gave birth without complications to her son, Morrison, now 3 months.

However, she will take medications for the rest of her life, and her doctor warned of potential dire effects if she stops taking them again.

And since her older son is active in sports, Hawes thought of what she and daughter Madison could do to promote a family activity.

They joined a group of girls training for the Cooper River Bridge Run in April.

At first, Madison wasn’t super thrilled.

But when they reached the bridge’s soaring first span, Madison grinned at the view: “Wow, this is beautiful!”

Since her heart attack, Hawes has learned that her biological mother had heart disease in her 50s. She wants to stop the cycle for her own children.

“It’s already in the second generation,” Hawes said. “Let’s not take it into a third. I want it to stop here.”

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or at www.facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.