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February 27th, 2014

A personal heart health journey

By Elizabeth Harty, Sr Communications Specialist

As a nurse at Mayo Clinic, Sheree Cook has seen the suffering and loss that comes from heart disease. But the toll the disease can take came even closer when she lost a brother and a sister to the disease. And doctors warned her she could be next.

walking760In 2005, Cook's sister suffered a heart attack. She didn't realize it for two days, since symptoms for women can be different from what we might consider as classic heart attack symptoms. Cook's sister felt ill, with intermittent vomiting, but blamed a bad shrimp dinner. Only when her husband insisted she go to the hospital did doctors find she had severe coronary artery blockage. "She had been having a heart attack that whole time," Cook recently told the Florida Times-Union newspaper. And by the time doctors were able to help her, "she had lost 80 percent of her heart muscle."

That's when Cook learned her sister's condition was hereditary. A doctor told Cook and her four other siblings that if they did not take immediate action to get healthy, they could be victims as well. "I was turning 40," she says. "I had small children." Cook knew that as an overweight, diabetic woman, she was at increased risk and decided, "I have to do something about this." The advice turned out to be all too true.

Sadly, Cook's sister passed away five months after her heart attack while waiting for a transplant. And in 2008, one of Cook's brothers died after a massive heart attack. Cook herself didn't wait to action. She had heart catheterization, which showed her left coronary artery 30 percent blocked. That's the artery known as the "widowmaker" (or "widowermaker") because complete blockage in the artery can cause a massive heart attack and sudden death.

Today, nine years later, Cook is 80 pounds lighter, exercises regularly, and maintains a healthy diet. Her family's diet has changed by cutting back on fats and carbohydrates, instead focusing on proteins and fruits, and drinking more water. As for exercise, "My main exercise is walking," she told the newspaper.

Cook has also made it her mission to help educate others about heart disease, working as an advocate for the American Heart Association in Jacksonville. She learned a lot, she says, from her family's experience — particularly that of her sister — and wants others to learn from it as well.

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