We know women wear many hats (mother, daughter, friend, chef, maid, breadwinner), and so it’s not uncommon for a woman to put her health and well-being on the back burner in order to take care of those around her. We hope that these Special Ladies in Red stories will inspire those at-risk women in Kern County to start taking care of themselves. If it could happen to them, it can happen to anyone, so take their words to heart and learn to take better care of yours.
Stories by American Heart Association staff.
Photography by Randall Photography
Bobbie Jo Unsell
Making changes to one’s lifestyle is not easy, especially when it requires what we think are “painful” adjustments to diet and exercise habits. It was not easy for Bobbie Unsell, but with determination and support from others she was able to lose 30 pounds and no longer be a diabetic!
What was Bobbie’s biggest motivator to make this possible? A heart attack she suffered in January 2014. A terrifying experience at just 46 years of age that came with no warning. Until that time neither she nor her parents had any history of heart conditions. As tests were performed, it turned out she had suffered two more attacks a few days prior, and she had one more, later that day, that almost took her life.
“I wasn’t feeling quite right and was having some throbbing, burning, and pressure throughout my chest, neck, and head. I wasn’t experiencing the chest and arm pain that I have always heard about. After thinking of every possible way to relieve the symptoms I was having and coming up with nothing, I knew it was time to go to the doctor,” recalled Bobbie.
The next morning, at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital, she had an angiogram which showed an almost complete blockage in the left anterior descending artery. Thanks to a stent procedure it was successfully opened.
“I realize how extremely lucky I am to call myself a survivor. It was a very frightening experience for myself and my family. I couldn’t believe this was actually happening to me,” said this mother of two, who cherishes the time she spends with her granddaughter and is anxiously waiting for her second.
Since her heart attack, her road to recovery has been life changing, inspiring many around her in the process.
“The first few months were nerve racking. I was afraid and overwhelmed, but with the support of family, friends, my nurses, and cardiologist, Dr. Wen, I made it through,” Bobbie explained.
She still goes to cardiac rehab three days a week and also walks and exercises on her own time.
“Just thirty to forty-five minutes a day makes all the difference in the world, even if it’s just walking. My diet has completely changed. I eat healthier than I ever have in my entire life and I am completely okay with that. I have lost 30 pounds since my heart attack and feel better than I have for as long as I can remember,” she added.
Due to all her positive changes Bobbie made to improve the quality of her life and health, she was nominated and awarded the Lifestyle Change Award for 2014, sponsored by Grimmway Farms and awarded by the American Heart Association.
“Don’t be idle,” said Bobbie when asked what advice she has for other women. “Exercise makes a world of difference. It did for me!”
Cynthia Slaydon & Ivah Louise Cole
In 2003 Cynthia Slaydon experienced chest pains, so she went to the ER. A scary situation was made even more confusing when, after being evaluated, it was suggested that she be released. But after consulting her doctor, he insisted that she be held for additional tests. Thankfully he did, because things were not okay. Two days after going to the ER, she underwent an angioplasty and had four stents placed in the left side of her heart. Usually, after the type of myocardial infarction [heart attack] that Cynthia experienced, patients recover only 50 percent of their heart’s function. The right side of her heart sustained some damage, but because she had been fairly active prior to the heart attack, Cynthia’s heart regained 85 percent of its function.
Cynthia felt grateful for her doctor’s insight and precaution but can also attribute her survival to her own willingness to seek treatment when she felt ill. She had to rely on those instincts again four years later when she experience some slight chest pain while at a “Race Watch”—the unofficial term for a Nascar viewing party. She thought she might just be experiencing some stress while rooting for her favorite driver but, given her history, she asked her husband to take her to Mercy Hospital. During this episode, she only required two stents. Which may seem like small consolation. But Cynthia is just happy that she got the help she needed so she could continue to live life.
Since her first heart episode, Cynthia witnessed her daughter’s wedding and the birth of three of her four grandchildren. “These are all things I wouldn’t have seen if they didn’t keep me in the hospital after my initial visit to the ER,” Cynthia mused.
The family is close, but one grandchild is following a little too close in her grandmother’s footsteps. Cynthia’s 11-year-old granddaughter, Ivah Louise Cole, began experiencing mild pressure in her chest and a rapid heartbeat last year. “It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, matters of the heart are things that should not be ignored.” Cynthia’s wisdom did not go ignored either. Ivah’s symptoms were investigated immediately.
When this piece was being written, Ivah was wearing a device that resembles an electrocardiograph, 24 hours a day for a month as she goes about her daily routine, in hopes it will determine the cause of her abnormal heart rate. The only activity that is restricted is participation on her junior roller derby team, the Diamond City Minors, which she is, naturally, not thrilled about. She was, however, allowed to go ice skating at a recent American Heart Association event that she attended with her grandmother, who is a major advocate for the AHA.
Cynthia has participated in numerous AHA events including walking the runway at last year’s Go Red Por Tu Corazon fashion show. She expects to be very busy during this year’s Go Red for Women campaign and is happy to bring her granddaughter along for the ride. The association’s work is a big part of her family’s life and just another thing that she can be grateful for.
Hilda Tarwater never knew 20 minutes could make such a difference. Two days before her 34th birthday, she was excited just thinking about possible celebration plans with her cousin. Hilda was home with her beautiful 2-year-old daughter and having placed her on the bed after a bath, she reached to get a comb. Something felt odd.
“Suddenly, I felt like someone put their hands in my chest to stop me from moving. I started feeling worse and sweating profusely and I had to lay on the bed,” said Hilda. “I thought I was going to faint. I could tell my little girl was worried and I called my husband at work to ask him to come home right away. We were alone and I was afraid.”
As she hung up, her arm went totally numb she began having trouble breathing. She picked the phone up again to call 911. When she tried to speak to the operator, she could not move her jaw and could hardly breathe. Fortunately, her husband had just arrived and was able to finish the call.
Shortly thereafter she was in an ambulance heading towards Memorial Hospital, where she was rushed to the OR. One of her arteries was totally obstructed. She needed an angioplasty and several stents placed in her heart.
“The doctors told me that if I had waited 20 more minutes to make that call to 911, I would not be alive to talk about it,” Hilda explained. “I could not believe that I was 33 years old and I had just had a heart attack. I thought it only happened to older people!”
Hilda’s life changed completely at that moment. Today she is doing well and is part of a rehabilitation program at Memorial Hospital that helps heart patients with their recovery.
“It feels like a family and they really support you during your treatment and they provide constant medical attention to help you get back on your feet.”
During her heart attack, Hilda thought it was her last day on earth. She remembers fighting to stay alert because her baby needed her. Knowing that dialing 911 saved her life is one of the reasons she likes to share her story, as well as making other women aware of common symptoms—often markedly different than symptoms of heart attack in men—so they will take the necessary steps to survive.
Today she feels fortunate to be able to share her testimony. “I am 34 and I am a heart attack survivor,” she stated proudly.
Joslynn & Charlie Skelton
Joslynn Skelton and her husband Andrew were joyfully expecting their third daughter on July 1, 2014. However, unlike their first two children, this baby girl brought with her a whole new journey for their family—a journey full of fears and unknowns.
At 22 weeks gestation, they were told that their daughter Charlotte “Charlie” Skelton had Hypo-plastic Left Heart Syndrome, meaning she was missing the left side of her heart and her aorta was completely closed off.
“Knowing that our little girl had a broken heart absolutely broke our hearts in turn,” recalled Joslynn, who since has learned that congenital heart disease kills more babies and children than all childhood cancers combined. She also learned that their child was not alone, since one in every 100 children is born with a congenital heart defect (CHD).
Although the statistics were daunting, Andrew and Joslynn received a ray of hope knowing that through life-saving surgeries and treatments, Charlie would have a real chance at a thriving life. Charlie is the epitome of courage, determination, and hope as she has survived two open heart surgeries, implantation of a pacemaker, numerous procedures in the catheterization laboratory, several blood transfusions, and countless needle pokes.
Her latest open heart surgery was on December 5, 2014. During this operation her surgeons worked to reconfigure her heart to function in a way where her right side does all of the work. It will oxygenate the blood and pump it throughout her body. Charlie will have a minimum of one more surgery to complete this process, between the ages of two and four.
“There are no words to explain what you go through as a parent when you watch your child literally fight to live,” said Joslynn. The Skelton family soon became advocates for the heart community and took action in spreading awareness; they truly embraced the heart community and life as a heart family. “We all found our roles, even our oldest daughter has taken action by starting a social media campaign to find a cure for Charlie, donating the proceeds to the American Heart Association.” They started a Facebook page documenting their journey as a heart family named “Hearts For Charlie” and one day they hope to see a cure for all children fighting CHD.
As a family with all girls, it is easy for them to Go Red for Charlie and all women! Go Team Charlie!
Margaret Patteson is the president of the Bakersfield Track Club, she has run five marathons, countless half marathons, and has participated in numerous century rides. She is the picture of perfect health. At least, that is what she and everyone else around her thought.
Last march, as Margaret ascended a popular mountain road in Kern County on her bike, suffering a heart attack was the last thing on her mind. However, she started feeling an intense pain in her chest, which then radiated to her jaw and shoulder, followed by nausea.
“One of my friends called 911. Another one gave me aspirin which I chewed and swallowed. My other friends stood over me, protecting me from the sun. My thoughts were repetitive; ‘This is so strange,’ I kept saying to myself,” recalled Margaret.
After she arrived at Bakersfield Heart Hospital, two EKGs were administered, but the reading was normal. A blood test revealed that her cardiac enzymes were highly elevated, and further tests showed a blood clot in her left anterior descending artery, as well as a narrowing in her right coronary artery. At the hospital, local cardiologist Dr. Brij Bhambi placed stents in both arteries, which restored blood flow to her heart.
“Who would have ever thought that I would have a heart attack? I learned from my doctors that my family history and genetics played a key role in my life. I have the inherited form of high cholesterol. I knew this already and had been on a low dose of a statin for several years. In fact, I had just had a checkup in January. My cholesterol numbers were all within acceptable ‘normal’ limits,” said Margaret.
After surviving the incident it was clear her fit lifestyle was not enough to keep her heart healthy. It was clear other factors, especially family history, were playing an essential role in her condition. Since the heart attack, Margaret underwent specialized blood tests that look at genetic markers. One test came back with a very high mark that cannot be reduced by statins alone.
“Now my kids are going through the same genetic testing. It is my belief that by knowing their risk factors, and taking the appropriate steps to manage their cholesterol and lifestyles, they will never have to go through what my family and I have gone through this year,” the mother of two explained.
Margaret is back enjoying her fitness lifestyle, her career as a pharmaceutical representative, and life as a busy mom. Since the incident, she has added one more item to her busy calendar, sharing her story with others. This year, she will be the main speaker at the Kern County Go Red for Women Luncheon, which is taking place Friday, February 27th. Her experience has prompted her to encourage all women, even those feeling perfectly healthy and fit, to undergo heart health screenings.
“It’s important for every woman to know her risks and how to treat them while continuing to lead healthy lives,” she stated.
The last two years of Melissa Hunnicutt’s life have not been easy. You won’t hear her complaining in public, however. A straight-forward, hard-working woman in her 40s, she has suffered 5 mini-strokes in as many years, but she is always back at the job as soon as she is able. “I go straight back as soon as I can. I don’t like to miss work, I have responsibilities. Call me hard-headed—the doctors do, but I enjoy going to work,” said Melissa with a hint of pride.
As the mother of two children, ages eight and 20, her medical condition has been hard on her family. “I have been in the hospital so many times my kids get nervous, especially the little one. She shakes when she hears the word hospital,” Melissa shared. “It affects everyone around you. I don’t like to think about it, but my family, friends, and coworkers are very supportive.”
What Melissa has experienced are Transient Ischemic Attacks (TIA), also known as “warning strokes” or “mini-strokes” which produce stroke-like symptoms but result in no lasting damage. Recognizing and treating TIAs can reduce the risk of a major stroke, which is why it is important to recognize the warning signs. The usual symptoms of a TIA are the same as those of a stroke, only temporary, and Melissa has felt many of them-from sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg (especially on one side of the body)-to a sudden, severe headache with no known cause.
“It took me a month to recover mobility in the left side of my body after my first stroke,” said Melissa. “Sometimes they’ve lasted for a week, others for a couple hours. Some effects linger, some go away right away. It has the doctors baffled that every time is different.”
Before her strokes Melissa was a busy mom who was always on the go—eating out a lot and not paying much attention to exercise. Now she has stopped smoking and she makes sure she walks every day.
A dispatcher for Western Hiways, a freight hauling business in Bakersfield, she loves every minute of her work day. Her last mini-stroke took place at work last June, and by then most of her coworkers knew to call 911 when her symptoms started. The support of her company and colleagues means a lot to her, especially when they formed a team to participate in the last Bakersfield Heart & Stroke Walk.
And, although she does not like to draw a lot of attention to herself, she proudly wore red on February 6, Wear Red Day. Because, she said, very straightforwardly, “This is just a good cause to support.”