Survivors share their stories straight from the heart

Speak up. Save lives. Go Red.

The words were repeated by each participant at the 2010 Go Red for Women casting call Tuesday at the Omni Fort Worth Hotel. But this tryout to become a volunteer spokeswoman involved much more than a clever slogan.

Every woman at the casting call, conducted before the annual American Heart Association luncheon, was there because heart disease had changed her life in one way or another.

Some were survivors with no family history of cardiovascular disease. Others had lost parents to heart disease and were trying to avoid the same fate. Still others were born with heart defects.

All were eager to tell their stories because they want to educate women about coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. More than 2,600 Americans die every day from the disease.

Lisa Elders participated in the casting call because in 1996 she went into cardiac arrest in an aerobics class.

"I was 28 years old, and to look at me, you would have thought I was the healthiest person in the world," said Elders, who lives in Double Oak.

She was told that she had cardiomyopathy, a disease in which the heart muscle becomes inflamed and does not work well. A bout with strep throat might have triggered the condition, but doctors did not know for sure.

Elders recovered without the need for a heart transplant, as was first expected.

In 2004, while swimming with her husband and son, she went into cardiac arrest again. Three years after that, it happened again. That time, it took 10 shocks from a defibrillator to restore her heartbeat. Since then, medication has prevented any further problems.

Elders said she doesn't like to draw attention to herself but came to the casting call because she thought it important to share her message.

Darcy Ripe of Burleson came for a different reason. In 1971, she was born with a defect that caused abnormal blood flow to the heart.

"They didn't have the kind of technology then that they do now," said Ripe, who had open heart surgery to correct the problem when she was 3.

The experience drove Ripe, now 39, to become a nurse in pediatric cardiology and share her experience with others in similar situations, she said.

Videotapes of the women telling their stories will be used to select volunteer spokeswomen who will represent Go Red for Women on promotional materials.

The casting call is intended to get women to open up about their experiences and to show others that heart disease can affect anyone, said Alexandra Wall of the Fort Worth American Heart Association. Those who are selected will be notified in May.

During her casting call, Sandra Harris of Arlington recalled how she woke up one Sunday morning nearly six years ago feeling overwhelmingly exhausted. She had no family history of stroke, but her symptoms were obvious. Her eyes were darting in different directions, one side of her face was drooping, and her speech was confused.

The stroke was so severe that doctors did not think she would live through the night. When she woke up and saw relatives gathered around her bedside, Harris wondered whether she was dying.

But her determination to survive was strong.

"I lost a kidney to cancer when I was 13 months old, and I have always been a fighter," she said. "I decided I was going to be in charge, not the disease."

Now 63, Harris wants women to know the warning signs and understand that there is life after a stroke.

"I don't worry, and I'm a happy person," she said. "I am so blessed."