Family history teaches heart health lesson

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By Calen McKinney


When she saw both her parents die from the disease, she knew she had to do something or she might die, too. And what she did could be what has prevented her from having a heart attack.

Patricia Cox was 40 when she had open-heart surgery. At 55 now, Cox has changed her lifestyle and takes medication to control her heart disease.

She was 32 at the time when her dad, J.R. Henderson, died of a massive heart attack.

"I thought, 'I'm gonna start taking an aspirin every day.' It can't hurt."

Five years ago, Cox's mom, Jeanette Henderson, died after battling heart disease and a stroke. And Cox said her mother and father both had brothers who died of heart disease.

February is recognized as American Heart Month. It was first recognized in 1964 by then-president Lyndon B. Johnson. Each president since has proclaimed the month as such. This year marks the 50th year for American Heart Month.

Cox grew up in Campbellsville, graduated from Taylor County High School in 1976 and went to work at Fruit of the Loom. She is married to David Cox, who is one of several co-owners of Classic Kitchens.

After working 11 and a half years, she gave up her job and decided to stayed at home with her two daughters, McKenzie and Lauren, who she said she couldn't stand to leave in the morning.

In October 1998, Cox said, her battle with heart disease began. She said she was mowing a yard when she felt something odd.

"It didn't hurt," she said, "but it felt like a tingling in my chest.

"I told David, 'Surely I don't have heart problems.'"

And Cox found that at other times when she exerted herself, that feeling would come back. A checkup with a doctor warranted a stress test, Cox said.

"I don't think it was even two minutes into it and he said, 'It hurts, doesn't it?'"

Cox was referred to a doctor in Louisville, who performed the first of many heart catheterizations she would have in the following years. The doctor found blockages and, as a result, couldn't put in a stent without performing bypass surgery.

Hearing she would have to have open-heart surgery was pretty scary. She said she had seen what the procedure would be like.

"I cried all day long," she said. "I got up in the middle of the night and prayed. It was like after that I calmed down."

Before her surgery, Cox said, a chaplain came to her room and told her the repairs to her heart might not last for more than 10 years.

"Now what you want to hear when you have heart surgery," she said.

Five blood vessels - one that was 98 percent blocked - were repaired. Cox healed from the surgery quickly and was walking on the second day of recovery. She said heart patients are told to not lift anything after surgery. The heart must have time to heal properly, she said.

"But if it heals, it will be stronger than it was. I guess it's stronger than it was.

"I've never had a heart attack," she said. "I've been fortunate."

Cox didn't have any other heart problems until she went on a vacation about nine years ago. She said she began to feel the same symptoms she felt when she first discovered her heart problems. Since then, her checkups have been good.

Since discovering her heart disease, Cox, who said she always wrestled with her weight, has changed her lifestyle by watching what she eats and exercising more. She works with an aerobics video on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and works with weights on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturdays.

"I'm getting a good bicep on me," she said.

Cox, who has recently lost 26 pounds, tries to do at least 30 minutes of exercise a day and limit the beef, pork and carbohydrates she eats. She also limits her sugar and fat intake and now eats more fruit.

"For the most part, I eat good," she said.

"I've really cut the sugars out. And that really makes me mad to think I couldn't have something when I wanted it."

Cox said she has cut back on fried food and eats more vegetables. But every now and then, Cox said, she will indulge.

"I just try to make good choices," she said. "You've got to eat right and you have to move.

"You need to eat green. More green and more fruit. Less deep fried."

And Cox said she listens to her body and is quick to visit a doctor when she believes something is wrong.

"And they listen to me," she said.

Cox said she recommends that all people do that, especially those who typically don't see a doctor unless they experience severe pain.

She sees a heart doctor three times a year and will have a heart catheterization about every four years. Cox also takes medication to help fight her heart disease.

"I will have to take an aspirin a day for the rest of my life," she said.

Cox said those who experience pain in their chest should see a doctor. She also recommends people see a doctor if they experience pain they've never felt before.

"Don't ignore it," she said. "If it's anything in the chest or on the shoulder, I think they're gonna need to go to the doctor.

"And if you don't take care of yourself, heart disease will get you."

Cox said she believes women are sometimes more focused on taking care of others that they don't tend to problems they are having.

"Listen to your body, because it talks," she said.

According to the American Heart Association, one in every three women die from heart disease. One in every 30 women dies from breast cancer.

Cox said she believes her faith in God has gotten her through her heart disease battle.

"Yeah, my faith's gotten me through a lot of stuff," she said.

Today, Cox spends her days working at Annetta's Flowers during the holiday seasons and fixing meals for youth at her church, Green River Memorial Baptist. Cox last saw her doctor in November.

"Everything checked out," she said.

Since Cox's parents suffered from heart disease and her husband's father did too, that history has kept McKenzie and Lauren watching their health very closely.

So far, Cox said, the two, who are both teachers and live in Louisville and Campbellsville, respectively, have been very healthy and show no signs of heart problems.

"My kids, they're determined to keep on top of it, too," she said.

Cox said she believes she has been blessed.

"Life's not easy," she said. "I've had a good life."