Lilliam Moro was 67-year-old, well-educated, a published poet. And she was a heart attack waiting to happen.
Except for obesity, Moro had nearly every risk factor for heart disease. She smoked, had diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
In August 2013, these factor combined to give Moro a catastrophic heart attack. After experiencing nausea, vomiting and extreme weakness, she called 911— and wound up at Jackson Memorial Hospital in full-blown cardiac arrest.
What happened next was unprecedented, according to Jackson heart doctors. She had a total of 27 heart attacks and needed to be continually shocked and administered CPR. She was put on a ventilator and had a device inserted in her aorta. Her right coronary artery was 100 percent blocked and there was fluid in her lungs.
No one — least of all Moro’s doctor, Dr. Cesar Mendoza — thought Moro would survive.
“I talked to the family and prepared them for the worst,” he said. “I did not think she was going to survive. I had never seen that many heart attacks. It set a record.”
But Moro slowly and miraculously improved. After three or four weeks, she was able to breathe on her own. She went home after six weeks.
Moro has now fully recovered and is more careful with her lifestyle. She quit smoking, changed her diet, exercises regularly and takes medicine for her high blood pressure.
Moro is a member of two groups that experts say are increasingly at risk for heart disease—women and Hispanics. African American women also are at risk, experts say.
“In general, the incidence of heart disease in men is declining and incidence of heart disease in women is going up,” said Mendoza.
Women are more susceptible to heart disease after menopause, Mendoza said. “They are protected until the age of 50 and 55. But they lose that protection because of the hormone changes and become vulnerable.”
If they’re on hormone therapy, they’re at an even higher risk.
Genetics also may play a part in Hispanic and African American women’s predisposition for heart disease. And educational information may not be readily available for many who also may not have the same opportunity as the larger population to get early medical treatment.
“They look for help when the disease is advanced,” said Mendoza. “At that point, it’s harder to treat.”
For this reason, a national organization called WomenHeart has established as its mission to educate women about heart disease and risk factors. Founded in 1999, the organization’s chapters around the country provides support groups to heart attack survivors.
It also educates women under its Red Badge of Courage program and advocates for legislation to help women with heart disease. There are now 110 support groups in 37 states.
Miami has two WomenHeart chapters, one for English and one for Spanish speakers. Both meet monthly at Baptist Cardiac and Vascular Institute.
About 20 women attend the monthly support group to share stories and hear from guest speakers.
“We are the only peer-to-peer support group for female heart attack survivors in the country,” said Ann DeVelasco, a cardiac nurse who suffered a heart attack in 2000, completed training at the Mayo Clinic to become a facilitator, then launched the Miami chapter of WomenHeart in 2003.
“When you have a face-to-face talk with someone and you see they are thriving, that means so much more than just reading something,” said DeValasco.
She shares her own story with attendees, how she suffered a heart attack in her early 50s. Like most women, she did not have the “elephant sitting on your chest” feeling that men have. Instead, she became sweaty, short of breath and had an irregular pulse. She went to the emergency room where she was shocked to discover she was having a heart attack.
“I said, ‘Can I go home now?’ and they said, ‘No, you’re in the middle of a heart attack,” DeVelasco recalls.
DeVelasco was lucky; she did not need surgery.
Even though her mother died of heart disease at age 42, she was unaware it is the number one killer of women in the United States and that 22.4 million women suffer from some form of cardiovascular disease, including strokes.
Making dietary and activity changes were important to DeVelasco, but having a support group to attend was instrumental in her recovery.
“Going to the support group changed me,” she said. “There are many psychosocial and physical things involved in having a heart attack.”
Mildred Rodriguez launched the Spanish version of WomenHeart at Baptist Hospital in 2010 after “coming to the conclusion that Hispanic women didn’t have any information about heart disease.”
“I never saw any information for Hispanic women in the doctor’s office,” she said. “I felt we needed to keep Hispanics informed. Just like African American women, we have a lot of risk just for being Hispanic.
“Genetics can’t be altered. It’s going to be there forever and ever, but we have to teach the Hispanic women that we have to be aware.”
About 17 women attend the monthly support groups over lunch. It is currently the only Spanish chapter of WomenHeart in the country, but more are planned.
“We have been getting close,” Rodriguez said. “We talk about our feelings, how you feel after the operation.”
Rodriguez, too, shares her own story of how she suffered a heart attack 16 years ago and underwent open heart surgery. She has made a complete recovery.
Moro, for her part, says she is just grateful to be alive.
“There’s a reason I didn’t die,” said Moro, who is working on a sequel to her poetry book. The original was called Obra Poética Casi Completa, or an “Incomplete Book of Poetry.”