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Faces of Heart: How Self-Care Can Save Lives

The only time Alicia Wilson could ever remember being hospitalized was during childbirth. That is until she fainted at her office outside of the ladies room, and a coworker found her on the ground. At first, she was confused.

“I thought I was at home in my bed,” she says. “I had totally blacked out. I’m looking at my coworker like, ‘Why are you in my bedroom?’”

A few tests at the hospital didn’t reveal much about why she fainted. The doctors suggested that she might’ve tripped in her high heeled shoes and sent her back to work. The next week, she got up early to walk her dog like she always did—but when she got back home, she felt herself fading out of consciousness again. 

“I felt like I was literally fading out of this world,” she says. 

She leaned up against a wall until she felt steady again, woke her daughter and sent her off to school and then called her mother—who came over to finally convince her to go to her doctor. The results of Wilson’s EKG alarmed her doctor enough to get a cardiologist to see her that day. Soon enough, she was diagnosed with cardiac sarcoidosis—a rare autoimmune disease where clusters of white blood cells form in the tissue of the heart—and became a candidate for a heart transplant. 

Seven years later, she’s still in a bit of disbelief, but she’s also incredibly grateful for her second chance at life. Her recovery has not been easy—physically or mentally—nor has it been linear. She remembers the shock of walking so much slower than she was used to, of having to drop her “go, go, go” mentality and quite literally start approaching her life one step at a time.

Wilson also recalls what she dubs her “come to Jesus moment,” when she was staring at the ceiling of the hospital room and realizing that the rest of the world was going on without her. As a single working mom, Wilson was used to carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders: working 10-hour days, being her daughter’s chauffeur and cheerleader, taking care of her home. There wasn’t much room for self-care in her schedule.

“Somewhere along the line, someone had created this terrible message—that if we take time out for ourselves, it’s considered to be selfish,” she says. “The bottom line is: If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anybody else—and you end up spending three months in a hospital bed.”

She credits a few people with helping her embrace her own life. First and foremost, her family, of course, but also her doctor, who refused to give her a handicapped parking pass after her surgery. 

“I love her to this day because she said, ‘Absolutely not. You are not handicap. That’s why you have a new heart,” Wilson says, tearing up. “I thank her so much for that, because that really changed my mindset.”

Stephanie Austin, a heart attack survivor and the creator of the American Heart Association’s Faces of Heart campaign, is another person Wilson is grateful for. Austin connected Wilson with other women who had survived heart conditions—an experience that empowered Wilson to share her story proudly. 

Wilson is the first woman to be named a Face of Heart Honoree—meaning she was nominated by someone in her community as a role model for preventing and recognizing heart disease in women. Although the program is only in its inaugural year, the network it has created is strong. Wilson has had the opportunity to connect with the other nominees and to share her story. 

“When you get to connect with other powerful, inspiring women from all walks of life and hear their heart stories, you just realize the power we have when we come together.”

The message that she really wants to get across to other women is that it is vital to take care of yourself before it’s too late—whether it’s walking for even just 10 minutes on a treadmill every day, regularly going to the doctor or taking time to check in with yourself mentally and emotionally. When you’re always on the go, it’s easy to start making the abnormal—like chest pains or other symptoms—start to feel normal. This is exactly what she wants women to stop doing—and she believes that sharing her story is a step in the right direction.

Faces of Heart is a campaign created by Stephanie Austin through the American Heart Association. Its mission is to spread awareness about how to prevent and recognize signs of heart disease through educational programming and the creation of a network of survivors.