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A Nagging Heartache: How to Fight Heart Disease

Gail O'Connor's mother was only 46 when she died of a heart attack, leaving behind two young children. Gail doesn't want history to repeat itself. Here's how she's fighting heart disease head on and how you can too.
A Nagging Heartache
Gail with Kids
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Rick Lew

I should feel happy, having the morning free to chaperone my son's class trip to the nearby children's museum. Instead I'm uneasy. I can't help thinking back to the time my mother went along with my fifth-grade class to a children's museum. It was also the day she died.

I remember that after our class toured the exhibits we sat at long tables and molded animals from clay. I turned and made eye contact with Mom, a few rows behind me. She held up a rabbit, with long front teeth. She was smiling.

The half-mile walk back to school was uneventful—carefree kids, an autumn wind blowing on our faces—until pandemonium erupted. The adults hovered in an intersection, toward the back of the line. I couldn't see my mother. A boy said she'd fallen. I wanted to move, or speak, but I stood frozen and dumbstruck. The principal arrived and my classmates and I were quickly ushered back to our classroom. What is happening to my mother? I desperately wanted to know, but no one would meet my gaze. Outside, an ambulance passed, its siren wailing.

After an interminable wait that afternoon at my grandmother's, my father finally came through the kitchen door, his shoulders slumped, his face drawn. He brought my 6-year-old brother and me into the living room, dropped into a chair and pulled us close. He hesitated for what seemed like forever, before barely whispering, "Mommy's in the heavens now." I broke free and ran, ran up the stairs, threw myself on a bed and screamed.

I've been running ever since: from the memory of that painful day and from delving too deeply into the mysteries that struck down my seemingly healthy mother at 46. At 37, I'm still young, but then so was Mom. I've got her blue eyes and thin legs—as well as some of the attributes that likely put her at risk, like a predisposition to harbor excess weight in the midsection. Whether by nature or nurture, I'm carrying on her weakness for cheese and, despite having run one marathon in my life, her on-again-off-again relationship with exercise. Like her, I have two young children. I know that damage to the heart is cumulative, that the choices I make right now will better or worsen my odds for a long life with my kids (and—knock wood—their children). Yet I've been too busy, too afraid, or maybe just too lazy to calculate my own risk for heart disease, which every year kills more women than all kinds of cancers combined.