Taking Care of Myself so That I Can Be There for Everyone Else

Jarretta Utley shares her story

This article is part of Health Divide: Heart Disease Risk Factors, a destination in our Health Divide series.

Jaretta Utley

Photo Courtesy of Jaretta Utley / Design by Zoe Hansen / Verywell

Meet the Author

Jarretta Utley is a heart-health advocate who speaks on the importance of taking your prescribed medication and eating a healthy diet.

I grew up eating good southern, fried food. My eating habits throughout my childhood were a mix of fried foods and processed foods. When I was living on my own and in college, my food choices and habits weren’t very healthy. I was on the go and eating fast food regularly.

I’ve always struggled with my weight and had high blood pressure, and since my 20s, I’ve been taking blood pressure medication. My eating habits changed after I graduated from college and even more when I was pregnant with my daughter, as most foods nauseated me. 

I stopped taking my blood pressure medication shortly after my daughter was born. I wasn’t working, and I didn’t have the money. All of my focus was on the baby. I was also breastfeeding and worried about passing anything that could harm her through my milk.

Jarretta Utley

I needed to take care of myself to take care of anyone else.

— Jarretta Utley

I was 35 when I had a heart attack. 

It was a Wednesday night in August. I was playing with my 18-month-old daughter. I had been sweating the entire evening; then, my chest suddenly started hurting. 

My mom assumed it was indigestion, so she brought me a soda. Something felt wrong. My mom called 911, but I didn’t want to leave my baby. The ambulance arrived as I resisted. I’ll never forget one of the paramedics asking me, “ma’am, do you want to see the baby grow up? Then you need to get into the ambulance.”

That was the first reminder that I needed to take care of myself to take care of anyone else.

I had a 100% blocked coronary artery. The doctor didn’t put a stent in; he just cleaned it out. The doctor compared my heart situation to a neighborhood with five houses. Two houses had burned down, but the other three were still OK. Basically, two of my arteries were no longer being oxygenated, but my heart would survive. 

Jarretta Utley

I had years of poor eating, high blood pressure, and my weight was a factor.

— Jarretta Utley

Wanting More for My Daughter

Having a heart attack at the age of 35 is not usual, and my cardiologist was surprised that I had such a severe heart event. After years of poor eating, high blood pressure, and my weight being a factor, my arteries had had enough.

I was then diagnosed with arteriosclerosis, meaning my body makes more cholesterol plaque in the arteries than it needs. However, I never had high cholesterol. I was also diagnosed with coronary artery disease.

Another risk factor is family history. My dad’s side has a history of heart disease. Two of my great uncles passed away within a year of each other, both from massive heart attacks. My great aunt also had a heart attack and had type 1 diabetes when she passed.

I worry about my daughter. I instill in her that she has to take care of herself now as a teenager. I often remind her what happened to me was because of my unhealthy eating habits when I was younger. I constantly remind her that she needs to watch what food goes into her mouth. 

Becoming My Own Advocate

I started volunteering with WomenHeart in 2011 because I didn’t want women to make the same mistakes as me. I encourage healthier eating habits–my motto is baked, not fried–but it’s really about eating foods in moderation. I stopped eating pork many years ago, along with fried foods, but I do enjoy, on occasion, some fried fish.

Another thing I talk about and encourage is the importance of annual visits to the doctor. Women are often the caretakers of the family, so we put our needs behind everyone else's. We shake off the pain, but by the time we deal with it, it may be too late. Don’t try to be a superwoman. Go to a healthcare provider and if you are prescribed mediation, take it. 

Jarretta Utley

You have to be an advocate for your own health and say, no, I know this is not normal for my body and you need to listen. Don’t stop until you’re heard. 

— Jarretta Utley

I also talk about the disparities in health care with other women of color. Being a woman of color, we’re not always taken as seriously when we go to the doctor with chest pain. Heart events in women present themselves differently than in men. It’s not always chest and arm pain. We can have headaches, jaw pain, and backaches for days, and we are often told that it’s just anxiety or stress. 

You have to be an advocate for your own health and say, no, I know this is not normal for my body and you need to listen. Don’t stop until you’re heard. 

Again, you have to be your best self to take care of yourself and your family. Take time for yourself, join a support group if you live with heart disease or have risk factors. Use that safe space to talk about how you are feeling with your support system. 

I'm thankful for another day and I'm grateful that I was allowed to live and share my story with others. I live with heart disease, but It doesn’t define me.

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