Control stress levels. Evidence suggests, according to AHA reports, a relationship between cardiovascular disease risks and environmental and psychosocial factors. Acute and chronic stress may affect other risk factors such as high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, physical inactivity, and overeating.
How Stress Can Be Deadly
For Bernard Tyson, a healthcare executive for Kaiser Permanente in Pleasanton, California, the inability to control stress put his life in jeopardy. Tyson admits work–life balance has always been a struggle. His usual week consisted of 15-hour workdays and constant travel. In 2006, Tyson felt short of breath and thought he was having mini asthma attacks. Actually, he suffered from cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle that made it difficult to pump blood to the rest of the body. Usually the condition can be treated if caught early. His case, however, was left untreated and after a weekend with friends in Las Vegas, he was hit by a full-blown attack and went into congestive heart failure. During the attack, Tyson, 50, remembers having difficulty breathing, his heart palpitating quickly, and feeling congested. His valve was not closing properly, so blood backed up into his lungs and other parts of his heart. After his friends rushed him to the hospital, he slipped into a coma for three days and had to be flown to San Francisco for open-heart bypass surgery, a procedure that creates a new route for blood and oxygen to reach the heart. “I knew I was dead. But then they woke me up out of my coma and I realized that I was still alive, he recalls. “So everything in me was geared toward the next step to full recovery.”
Since his surgery, Tyson hasn’t had any complications. He needed to make serious changes to his diet and lifestyle though. The first change: Reducing his salt intake. “Sodium is in almost everything we eat. The biggest eye-opener for me is how much salt we use to preserve products that we buy every single day,” says Tyson.
The second change was getting back in shape. “Every day, no matter how miserable I felt, I had to do some type of exercise, whether that meant walking to the corner, around the house, or lifting minor weights” he says. “It was a very deliberate and aggressive program to get me back up to full speed.”
Cultural or Individual Responsibility?
Leggett believes while some cultural differences predispose African Americans to certain behavior, they must be vigilant and exercise self-discipline. “You can say that African Americans culturally like to eat or don’t exercise or are just overweight in general, and I’ll say to you the things we want to do seem to get done,” says Leggett. “African American men will jump in a car and drive 100 miles to play golf, but won’t drive two miles to see a doctor.”
Today, both Thomas and Tyson know their lives will never be the same again. With the help of family and friends, they are both making the necessary individual changes to live healthy and productive lives. “I’m learning how to love my heart more and more every day. I don’t overdo it,” says Thomas. Currently, Thomas is in a 22-week physical therapy program and is up to 17 minutes walking on the treadmill. She decided to also cut her work hours and works only two full-time days and three part-time days as a district sales manager at General Motors in Atlanta. “I enjoy what I do, but the underlying stress of the load will harm you, especially someone like me,” says Thomas.
Both make sure to stay physically active and take medication to help their hearts be as efficient as possible. “If I’ve learned anything from this heart situation, it’s that I have a different appreciation for life, “ says Tyson. “I don’t sweat the small stuff nearly as much as I used to beforehand.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.