Advocate for heart health

Keisha Hawes, who had a heart attack at age 31, is a national spokeswoman for the American Heart Association's upcoming Go Red for Women campaign, held in conjunction with American Heart Month.

Keisha Hawes was a mere 31 years old when she found herself alone in an intensive care unit after suffering from a heart attack. She was surrounded by monitors, dealing with a series of medical missteps and a stent procedure with painful complications.

Her visiting family had gone home and she noticed that her blood pressure numbers were in the teens, precariously close to zeroes. A nurse had come in asking her to sign papers for a blood transfusion, which astounded Hawes but seemed par for the course.

"At that moment, I felt my first taste of fear," says Hawes, now 34 and a customer service representative for South Carolina Electric & Gas in North Charleston.

"At that point, it was really only me and God. I start talking to him and I said, 'I need a sign - I demand a sign - that everything is going to be OK."

The nurse came in with a blood bag for her transfusion and hung it on an IV rack.

Hawes looked at the bag, which had her blood type on it: B positive.

It was her sign.

"At this moment, in my mind, I hear a voice from God and he's telling me to 'be positive,' that he's never left me or forsaken me, and that he will take this experience and make it a very positive one for me and my family."

In the months following her heart attack in May 2011, Hawes didn't share her story much. Friends called her after hearing "rumors" of it.

The calls often went like this: "Did you have a heart attack?"


"Are you serious?"

Now chuckling, she recalls saying, "Serious as a heart attack."

Others would call her describing their own chest pains, seeing if she thought it was a heart attack. She urged them to see a doctor.

Her journey toward being a heart health advocate was interrupted briefly with an unexpected pregnancy, which she discovered in February 2012, and was a cause for concern. But she delivered a 91/2-pound baby and her third child, Madison, without any problems.

Little did Hawes know that an impromptu stop at an American Heart Association Go Red for Women "casting call" party last January would launch her onto the national scene. Friend and WCIV-TV co-anchor Tessa Spencer had invited her, but an ad on the radio reminded her of the party.

Hawes arrived there and felt a tad out of place. Everyone was wearing red dresses. She was in a beige sweater and jeans. And she was the last to have her story videotaped for the casting call. Organizers were shocked because Hawes was so young and not obese. Still, she left the event thinking nothing would come of it.

But Robyn Morrissey, marketing director for the local heart association chapter, recalls that Hawes and her story "immediately lit up the room with her passion to bring awareness about heart disease in women."

Morrissey's instincts that Hawes could move to the proverbial next level was on target. The young woman with a bright smile and compelling presence also caught the attention of national representatives and through a series of interviews, she eventually got exciting news in June.

Out of hundreds of vetted submissions, Hawes was selected as one of seven national survivor spokeswomen for the coming Go Red for Women month.

Last July, Hawes was flown to Los Angeles and spent four days, free of charge, meeting and bonding with her fellow "heart sisters" and doing photo and video shoots.

"It was one of the best experiences of my life," says Hawes, adding, "I actually laid my head on a pillow in Beverly Hills."

More excitement could potentially come in the weeks ahead as national TV shows seek out interviews for American Heart Month. Hawes' dream would be on the "Ellen" show or on "Today Kathie Lee & Hoda."

Morrissey says the local chapter is thrilled to have a survivor from the Charleston area be part of the national face of heart disease in women.

"Keisha is an extraordinary woman and has a powerful story to share," says Morrissey.

Hawes and the stories of the other national spokeswomen underscore the fact that heart disease remains the No. 1 killer of women, as well as men, in the United States, and that youth nor gender does not make one immune.

Hawes' life leading up to the attack is not unlike those of many American women.

The College of Charleston-educated, married mother of two, at the time, was working 70-hour weeks at several jobs after being laid off from her job at a nonprofit.

She had stopped taking medications for her diabetes and hypertension to save money. In the stressful scramble of daily life, she relied heavily on fast food and didn't make time to exercise.

Hawes, who was adopted, also had heart disease in her family history.

Her maternal grandmother had died from a heart attack in her 50s.

"I had started feeling chest pains, but when I first felt them, I thought it was an anxiety attack from the stress," she recalls, adding that the pains, often accompanied with shortness of breath, were "fleeting."

"I'd catch my breath and get back to work. I didn't have time to even think about the frequency or the intervals between them. I would not have even thought of a heart attack. Who at 31 thinks that, right?"

On the night before she went to the hospital, Hawes was upset and went to a fast-food restaurant for a burger, thinking it would make her feel better. She ate the burger in her car and then went home to lie down.

"Immediately my chest started hurting and I thought it was indigestion," she says.

The pain continued and eventually she decided to drive herself to the hospital in the family's only car. She remembers blacking out on her way from her West Ashley home to Roper's Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital Emergency Room.

"In this moment, I only had one person left to call on, and for me and many in the Holy City, everyone knows that's Jesus. I said, Lord, please make me get to the hospital safely."

Hawes wasn't the only one who had doubts that a young woman was having a heart attack.

Hawes says initially the attendant didn't understand that Hawes was the one with chest pains. Then an attending doctor got the blood work of Hawes and another, older, woman who also came in complaining of chest pains mixed up. They assumed the serious case belonged to the older woman and apologized to Hawes upon discovering the mix-up.

Eventually, doctors confirmed that she had a heart attack and that her main coronary artery was 95 percent blocked and required a stint.

The entire incident served as a wake-up call for Hawes, her family and many friends. They are eating healthier and finding time for exercise. Hawes and daughter Madison walked last year's Cooper River Bridge Run and Walk. Husband Michael Hawes, despite having bad knees from football, joined his wife for the Heart Walk.

Hawes now wants to spread the word of heart health, particularly to women and African-Americans.

She's talked, and wants to talk, at local churches. She wants to help break the cycle of heart disease for her children and community.

"We have to get the word out," says Hawes. "People think they will worry about their heart when they are older, but if you don't concentrate on your health when you're younger, you may not have the opportunity to grow older. And your quality of life suffers."

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.