Jennifer Campbell knew heart disease runs in her family. Three of her grandparents died from heart-related conditions. Her father passed away at the age of 62 from a massive heart attack in 2007.
But Campbell, now in her early 40s, always figured she was too young to worry about all of that. Even when she was 26 and rushed to the emergency room with shortness of breath and a burning sensation in her throat, a classic sign of angina. Or eight years later, when she felt a deep burning in her chest during a walk along the beach with her sister.
"I thought I was too young and didn't have to worry about it," said Campbell, a mom of one who works as a self-employed hair stylist at Stylist Studios in Cary. "Any kind of symptoms I had, I attributed to smoking."
Campbell, at one point a pack-a-day smoker and regular at fast food restaurants, learned the hard way that heart disease can strike anyone at any time. When she was 34 weeks pregnant with her son, she made another trip to the ER because she couldn't breathe.
Doctors performed an emergency C-section to deliver her son, who was tiny, but healthy. They diagnosed Campbell with congestive heart failure and pregnancy induced cardiomyopathy, which weakens the heart. As her son recovered in the neonatal intensive care unit, Campbell spent his first days hooked up to a ventilator in the intensive care unit.
The diagnosis changed Campbell's life. She eventually learned that she had experienced two previous heart attacks - likely during the episode at age 26 (though it was never diagnosed by doctors at the time) and during the walk along the beach eight years later. While her son was still an infant, she learned she needed a triple bypass and endured a third heart attack on the operating table.
Today, she has a defibrillator and pacemaker implanted and is on a course of medications. Doctors now tell Campbell, who has quit smoking and eating healthier, that she'll eventually need a heart transplant.
Exercise is out of the question for Campbell now. Her heart is too weak. She struggles sometimes to keep up with her high-energy son, who is now nearly 5.
"I'm always going to my son, 'Mom can't do that. I'm sorry,'" she said. "You should have known me 10 years ago. I could run. I could play."
But she believes she might not be here now if she hadn't been pregnant with him.
"I call him my baby angel," she said. "He saved my life. I was a walking time bomb. I wouldn't have known [about the heart disease] without the pregnancy."
Campbell, now active with the American Heart Association, shares her story because she wants other women to know that heart disease can strike anybody. She talks regularly with her clients about the need for regular physicals and checks. She hands out pamphlets to raise awareness and has a "Go Red for Women" sticker stuck on the mirror at her station at work.
"There are all kinds of symptoms," she said, ticking off shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, a burning sensation in your arms, the sensation that something is sitting on your chest and you can't breathe.
But even women with a family history of heart disease can lower their risk. Quitting smoking can cut the risk of heart disease by 50 percent, according to the heart association. The group says walking 30 minutes a day and eating healthier also can lower the risk.
Women often disregard the warning signs because they are so busy raising kids, working and taking care of their families, Campbell said. But it's important to take the time to care for yourself.
"Don't disregard them," she said "Get your physical. Ask about your heart. Get an EKG. Eat fruits and vegetables. Just be aware of anything that doesn't seem right."
The American Heart Association's Triangle Heart Walk, which raises money and awareness for heart disease, is Sept. 28 at the PNC Arena in Raleigh. Go Ask Mom is excited to be there as part of the festivities, which includes a one or three-mile walk, family-friendly activities and health information. Check the website for more information about how you can take part.
Go Ask Mom features local moms every Monday.