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Survivor of heart failure dedicates birthday to educating other women

By Julie Hays, CNN
updated 12:29 PM EST, Mon January 30, 2012
Friday is National Wear Red Day as the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women effort educates women on heart health.
Friday is National Wear Red Day as the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women effort educates women on heart health.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dee Stewart was diagnosed with a heart condition after her daughter's birth
  • Stewart dedicates her birthday to educating women about heart health
  • Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, according to American Heart Association
  • Stewart and others don red on Friday to raise women's awareness about heart disease

(CNN) -- Dee Stewart's birthday is Friday, and she'll be wearing red to celebrate. It's not her favorite color, but it is for her favorite cause.

Friday is National Wear Red Day, part of the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women movement to raise awareness about women's heart health. Stewart is a survivor of heart failure.

Stewart's life changed in 2000 when she remained hospitalized for fatigue, nausea and other unexplained symptoms after her daughter's birth.

"They couldn't figure out what was wrong with me," said Stewart of Covington, Georgia. "By the time they figured it out, my heart function had gone to 5%, and I was on the heart transplant list."

Stewart was diagnosed with peripartum cardiomyopathy, a rare heart disorder that affects women from the final month of pregnancy to five months after childbirth. She had never heard of the condition before and had no history of heart disease in her family, or so she thought.

"Once I became sick, we had to dig into our family history to find out was it hereditary," Stewart said. "I've had relatives that have died from it."

After her diagnosis, volunteers from the American Heart Association helped teach Stewart about her illness and how to manage its symptoms.

Her heart function has improved to around 40%, and by making lifestyle changes, she is able to lead a mostly normal life.

During her recovery, Stewart realized how important it was to educate herself and other women about the risk factors and warning signs of heart disease.

You only get this heart once. Be forceful about your health.
Dee Stewart

"We like to take care of the family and everyone else first. We have to go to the doctor first. The family cannot boil water if you're sick," she said. "The more education we know about these things the better we can react for our families."

For 10 years, Stewart has dedicated her birthday to teaching other women about heart health and raising money for Go Red for Women.

"Every year that I'm alive I want to remember. I want to educate women on the Go Red campaign and American Heart (Association) because they really did save me," Stewart said.

According to the association, cardiovascular disease claims the lives of 500,000 women each, yet like Stewart initially, a large percentage of women are unaware of its dangers.

"I think that women commonly think of heart disease as a man's disease, which it is not. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women," said Dr. Mary Ann Bauman, medical director for women's health and community relations at INTEGRIS Health in Oklahoma City and also a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women movement.

"This grass-roots movement has made a difference," Bauman said. "Research shows that women (who) have visited (the Go Red for Women) website, more than a third of them have lost weight; 40% have checked their cholesterol; a third of them have talked to their doctors."

Go Red for Women is trying to raise $100,000 by the end of February in honor of National Heart Month to fund additional research and education programs on women's heart health.

This year Stewart will don her red and gather with friends, family and other women at a suburban Atlanta restaurant to celebrate her 39th birthday, raise money for the association and teach women to take charge of their health.

"It can happen to anybody. I don't want women to wait," Stewart said. "You only get this heart once. Be forceful about your health."

She plans to pass out small red dress pins, a symbol of Go Red for Women's fight for awareness.

"For me it symbolizes that there is an importance placed on women's health. It also seems like a sisterhood when I see people with the red pins on," Stewart said.

She said hopes the pins are a reminder that heart disease can be treated and even prevented, but first you have to be informed.

For information on the American Heart Association, visit its website. To get involved with the Go Red for Women movement as a fundraiser or event organizer, sign up online.

To participate in the Wear Red Day Challenge, record a video or a take a photo and submit it on the Go Red for Women Facebook page before February 23.

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