Fighting With Heart: One Survivor’s Journey to Advocacy After Heart Attack and Stroke

Hyvelle Ferguson-Davis, 41, was at work when the headache started. It grew so severe that she was unable to see clearly, and it didn’t get better even after she took an aspirin and went home for a nap. Too busy to take time to rest, she put it to the back of her mind and went about making dinner for her kids.

When her daughter entered the kitchen, she immediately knew something was wrong. “I remember my daughter saying, ‘Mom, you sound funny,’” Furguson-Davis said. Her daughter called Furguson-Davis’ sister, who insisted on calling an ambulance.

When the paramedics arrived, they wanted to take Ferguson-Davis to the hospital for extremely high blood pressure. “I was upset because my day was already written,” she said, “and I was behind schedule.” Focused on her responsibilities for the evening, she waved away the paramedics and went back to cooking dinner. However, her foot went numb soon after, and her husband insisted on a trip to the emergency room.

Once there, Ferguson-Davis was shocked to learn that she was having a stroke. “My world changed,” she said. “It stopped. All these nurses and doctors are suddenly coming in, there’s wires, and I was thinking, ‘what the heck is going on?’”

Luckily, Ferguson-Davis had arrived in the timeframe to treat the slow bleed, and she was sent to a rehabilitative facility for three weeks to relearn how to speak and do everyday tasks. Doctors linked her stroke to Type 2 diabetes, which she had been diagnosed with while pregnant with her son.

“It was surreal,” Ferguson-Davis said. “I was so used to doing for myself, and here I couldn’t do anything.”

Only a few weeks after returning home, Ferguson-Davis woke up to a pounding in her chest. This time, she was quick to respond to her body’s signals, and went right to the emergency room. Once there she received the news — she was experiencing a heart attack and needed immediate surgery. Rushed into the operating room, Ferguson-Davis underwent a quadruple-bypass surgery.

Recovery was long and painful, and Ferguson-Davis was left with an overwhelming sense of depression. “I didn’t want to do anything,” she said. “I wallowed in my darkness.”

While attending cardiac rehab, Ferguson-Davis saw a Mended Hearts brochure, and decided to attend a meeting. It ended up changing her life.

“These were actual people telling their stories,” she said. “Seeing people trying to survive and thrive and they’re getting together to do so. I felt empowered and like I could do the same.”

Ferguson-Davis joined Mended Hearts® and turned her focus to advocacy. “When you’re sick, the family roles change. The support from Mended Hearts in knowing I’m not alone, and knowing that someone else has made it, helps.”

As she learned more about the link between diabetes and heart disease, Ferguson-Davis realized there was a gap in knowledge for many African American women facing similar diagnoses. “When I started learning about diabetes and heart disease, I felt obligated to help women,” she explained. “Their risk is different. Even if I was feeling good outside, I was actually dying inside.”

Ferguson-Davis founded Heart Sistas, a community for education and resources for African American women dealing with diabetes, heart disease and stroke. She says everyone can benefit from learning more about the right ways to manage your health, but the risk is especially high for African American women.

As Ferguson-Davis learned from her doctors, heart disease, stroke and diabetes often go hand-in-hand. Diabetes can cause hypertension, or high blood pressure, which puts stress on the arterial walls. In fact, if you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, you are twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke than someone without that same diagnosis.

High blood sugar can affect, and eventually damage, the blood vessels and nerves in your heart. This issue can be paired with a buildup of cholesterol in your arteries that can cause a heart attack like the one Ferguson-Davis experienced. Over time, people with diabetes can also end up with a heart failure diagnosis, which is a chronic condition where the heart is unable to pump correctly.

“You need to see your doctor, eat better and know your A1C,” Ferguson-Davis recommends. “I’m trying to teach my children to break generational cycles. My mom has diabetes and heart failure. I don’t want my children to experience it, either.”

 

Understanding Heart Disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and it disproportionately affects African Americans. According to a study in 2018, African American adults are 30% more likely to die from heart disease than other populations, and African American women are 60% more likely to have high blood pressure.

The term “heart disease” refers to several different types of heart conditions. In the U.S., coronary artery disease is the most common type and the one that can result in heart attacks.

Heart disease can be prevented or managed through healthy lifestyle changes and sometimes medication. Many people find success through methods like quitting smoking, increasing exercise and reducing salt and fat in their diet. Staying on top of regular healthcare appointments, monitoring your blood pressure and communicating any changes in symptoms with your doctor can also help prevent any catastrophic health episodes.If you are living with heart issues, an organization like The Mended Hearts, Inc. can help. Support networks are an important part of maintaining positive health outcomes; so often, it’s enough to know you aren’t alone.