Smart Heart Health: Black Women CAN Save Themselves From Needless Tragedy

None of us were ready for the parting not my Mari, who adored her Gamma and wanted at least another few days with the woman who treated her like a princess; not my mother, who wanted to visit with her granddaughters a little while longer; not me, who could never get enough of watching my babies get hugged on and kissed on and loved on by their grandmother, who loved them so. But mommy was on her way to a family reunion down in South Carolina and I had to get back home to get ready for work and it was getting late. And so we said our good-byes. I can still see my mother’s face how beautiful she looked, waving and blowing kisses from the front stoop as I pulled out of the driveway with her grandbabies. We blew kisses back my Mari and I. And we said it again and again and some more: I love you.

I never saw my mother again.

She flew down to South Carolina on the Wednesday, feeling a little out of it lethargic. Achy. Like she was catching a cold. The next day, she was dizzy and weak and her back was aching. Over the next two days, all of her symptoms got worse so bad that by the time my aunt and uncle had my father convince my mother that she should go to the hospital, she could no longer speak, let alone object to their calling 911. By Sunday, my mother passed on from here. She died of complications from a heart attack.

I miss her so. And in the quiet moments, when I’m not thinking about what was, I’m considering what could have been—specifically, whether my mother would have lived had everyone around her recognized that for the five days leading up to her death, she was exhibiting the symptoms most common for female heart attack victims.

It wasn’t until after my mother died that I found out there are differences. I mean, you know how it all happens on TV and the movies: A person in mid-heart attack clutches his chest, loses his ability to speak or breathe and falls out in the most dramatic of fashions. Someone shoves an aspirin in his mouth and everything is all good, amen. But heart attacks don’t reveal themselves the same way in women. Indeed, a study of women’s early heart attack signs published in Circulation say common female heart attack symptoms include:

¢       shortness of breath (57.9%)

¢       weakness (54.8%)

¢       unusual fatigue (42.9%)

¢       Nausea

¢       Dizziness

¢       Lower chest discomfort

¢       Upper abdominal pressure or discomfort that may feel like indigestion

¢       Back pain

What’s more, the WebMD article on which I found this study said that women can exhibit these symptoms up to a week before their heart muscles suffer irreparable damage, leading us to believe that we’re suffering from something anything other than a heart attack.

This is why it’s critical that we women not only do what it takes to keep our heart muscles strong exercise, keep our weight at normal levels, eat healthy foods, watch our cholesterol and blood pressure, refrain from smoking but spread the word and learn the facts about heart disease and specifically how it affects women. For sure, we African American women need to pay more attention to heart disease, as while it is the leading cause of death among all women, it affects black women at even greater numbers, particularly because the risk factors associated with heart disease including diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure tend to be huge health issues with us.

Recently, Diet Coke reached out to MyBrownBaby to invite me and my homegirl/co-author Mitzi Miller of Mitzi Moments to New York City to attend The Heart Truth® Red Dress Collection Fashion Show at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week and Diet Coke’sPre-Show Reception an event designed to help stir up discussion about heart health among women and ways we can help raise money to research and fight the heart disease. The event supports a national awareness campaign sponsored by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. It was an amazing evening full of great conversation, including a panel discussion led by Bravo’s Andy Cohen, heart healthy food, and, of course, a star-studded show fashion show with some of our favorite entertainers and personalities—boxer Laila Ali, rapper-turned-actress Eve, songstress Patti LaBelle, newscaster Ann Curry, and actresses Taraji P. Henson and Garcelle Beauvais strutting the catwalk in designer red dresses. The information I’m sharing today is part of the message Diet Coke and many other organizations dedicated to keeping women healthy shared with me, and I thought it only fitting to pass it on.

But this isn’t the only reason I’m writing about heart health. Not even close. I write about these things because my family suffered a great loss over not knowing these facts. And if this post can spare just one mother from harm, one daughter from grief, one granddaughter from losing out on getting to know her Gamma, then I’ve done good in the name of Bettye Millner, my mom.

For more information on women and heart health, check out these awesome organizations:

NHLBI Health Information Center

Phone: 301-592-8573

TTY: 240-629-3255

American Heart Association

Phone: 1-888-MY HEART

WomenHeart: the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease

Phone: 202-728-7199

Office on Women’s Health

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Women’s Health Information Center Phone: 1-800-994-WOMAN TDD: 1-888-220-5446

You should also check out Diet Coke’s Heart Truth web page, which is full of recipes and exercise, hydration and eating tips designed to improve heart health. The site also highlights super cutie ways viewers can trigger Diet Coke donations for heart-worthy organizations during the month of February the month earmarked to celebrate and highlight heart health.

And a bonus: Campbell’s Soup, also a big supporter of Heart Health month, is making a $1 donation to the American Hear Association’s Go Red For Women movement, up to $625,000, for every video viewed on Dude, seriously I can’t think of an easier way to help save women’s lives. GO WATCH THE VIDEOS NOW!

And take care of yourselves, ladies. For your babies. For your men. For yourself.

Diet Coke paid for my travel and accommodations to the heart health event, but obviously, the passion and thought behind this post are all my own. I say this because the IRS says I have to but each of you knows my heart and the true reason I write posts like these. Full disclosure just so you know.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. Very poignant and moving Denene. I am so sorry for your loss. So sorry. This motivates me more to get my ish together and lose this weight. I lost my aunt to a heart attack as well. And there were signs and she would be living now had she known what those signs were leading up to. Thanks for sharing this story.

  2. Oh Denene. My heart goes out to you. My mother also recently passed away. When did this happen? I will share this with my tribe of followers. As for full disclosure, good for Diet Coke for sponsoring you to attend the heart health event. This is a perfect example of how our professional work combines with our heart work. Your experience there has obviously given you the knowledge to share with all the people who enjoy your blog (me being one of them). Thank you for this important “heartfelt” post.

  3. Wow, Denene. That is a very frightening way to loose a loved one, a Mother nonetheless. After seeing pictures, etc from the Red Dress event, I’m sure you had a great time, but on another note, thanks for shedding light on this issue. I had no idea that the symptoms of a heart attack a different for women than men. I just usually think of the dramatics that we see on T.V. Also, heart disease is such a serious issue amongst women and we all need to be schooled on it.

  4. A couple of months ago, I began experiencing chest pains. The next day, the chest pains turned to shortness of breath and dizziness. My first instinct? Just chill. I’m 35, right? It’s probably nothing, right?. However, that other side of me…the side that reads too many blogs like yours, Denene…said, What if? So, I got in my car and drove myself to the ER (Bad Idea, said the doc. I should have called 911). While I’m fortunate that my issue was not a heart attack — although the stress related pain that it was could actually lead to something like that — the doctors and nurses said it was smart for me to come in; that many people don’t and the results are tragic. So thank you, Denene, for championing this cause and giving space to it on your blog. Your beautiful mother is (present tense) very proud! ~ TMLG

  5. Great post! thank you for all the ifo. Sorry for your loss, mothers are irreplaceable.

  6. THANK YOU for this inspiring and informative post Denene. We must become aware of these differences and learn to share family medical history. Unfortunately, sharing our history often doesn’t include sharing of family medical history until well, until times like these. I was shocked to learn my cousin was diagnosed and treated with breast cancer while in her early 30s. Is this something the women in my family would benefit from knowing…umm, YES. While rates continue to decline across other races, such is not the case for African American women. Why? Well, that is a mystery yet to be solved but it is sharing stories like yours that information is obtained. Information that can save a life.

    I cannot thank you enough for opening your heart to share your story knowing someone will be saved.

    Much love and appreciation.

  7. Denene,
    I am sorry for your loss and thank you for sharing this information. I wish you strength in dealing with this difficult time.

  8. That was so touching. My father had a history of heart problems and strokes and his heart finally gave out during dialysis. Last year I was experiencing pain in my left arm, dizziness and some nausea and I was concerned that I was having a stroke. Turns out that it was painful lymph nodes and I have fatty liver. My sister and I are trying to turn our lives around, eating healthier and exercising regularly. I have to be more cognizant of the fact that I’m not getting any younger and I can’t just eat whatever I want and not exercise. I want to be around for my son and be a grandmother. Thank you for the reminder on good heart health.

  9. For this very reason, I try and walk every day or have dance parties with my family that are really disguised cardio sessions. My motto is really “The women in my family died from reasons they put on themselves. I can try and change that. I refuse to lay down by my own hand.” Thank you for this reminder.

    My best, Lynn

  10. I’m so very sorry to hear of your mother’s passing. I can only imagine what that pain must feel like. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your Mari, during what I’m sure is a very difficult time.

    I am appreciative of you sharing this information because I have two sisters that are exhibiting symptoms of heart conditions so I will be passing this information on to the both of them. One has been diagnosed and is being monitored closely – the other, has palpitations, panic attacks, and shortness of breath, but has been told that nothing is wrong with her.

    I will be doing my part by sharing this article on my FB page, in hopes that it will bring awareness.

    Again, thank you so much.


  11. Heartfelt condolences to you and your family, Denene. And every gratitude to you also for sharing potentially life-saving information about how to recognize the often unfamiliar symptoms of when a woman — not a man — has a heart attack. “May Life,” as the ancient saying goes, “always follow Death.”

  12. Thank you Denene, for sharing your story. I was completely ignorant to the symptoms leading up to female heart attack. Sometimes it takes someone who sparkles like you to instill a passion for something that I may have just shrugged to the side. Charity… you want to contribute to a cause, but you have to pick one that hits home or else it seems like just another *thing* with lack of authenticity. My heart aches for you. Love you.

  13. Denene@MyBrownBaby

    I promise you guys, I have THE ABSOLUTE BEST community of moms and dads on the internet. THANK YOU for all of the kind words, all of the support, all of the love. It’s been almost nine years since Mommy passed, but some days, it feels like it happened just an hour ago. But if I can use her story to help other women, other daughters, other grands, other wives, other aunties—just others—then it makes the missing a little bit easier. Please, PLEASE take care of yourselves. We must.

  14. What a great and informative post! Thank you. 😉
    Loving the new format…well done.

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