Knowing the Signs of a Heart Attack and Listening to Your Body

Rolanda Perkins shares her heart attack story

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

Photo of Rolanda Perkins

Photo courtesy of Rolanda Perkins / Designed by Julie Bang / Verywell

Meet the Author

Rolanda Perkins is a heart attack survivor and heart health advocate with WomenHeart and the American Heart Association.

In 2005, I had a heart attack at 39 years old. There were no heart health issues in my family medical history, so my heart attack was a surprise to me and everyone in my family.

For a week leading up to my heart attack, I had a headache that wouldn’t go away. I didn’t know that headaches were a sign of heart attacks, and it was my only symptom at that time.

I was under a lot of stress, both from my job and from planning a few different family events, including a party for my sister’s 40th birthday and a cookout at my house. I was running around, getting things ready and preparing, so I wasn’t getting enough sleep or rest.

Even though my headache wasn’t going away, I didn’t go to the doctor because I figured stress must have been causing it. I did a lot of self-diagnosing that week.

While cleaning up after the cookout at my house, I was mopping my kitchen floor and I felt a sharp pain in my chest. I had never felt a pain like that before. I figured it might be due to stress or indigestion, so I dismissed it and told myself that I’d go to the doctor if I felt it again. This was the second time that I self-diagnosed.

Early the next morning, around 4 am, the pain came back and woke me up from my sleep. I immediately knew something was wrong. I felt very strange, and the pain was a lot more intense,  like something abnormal was happening. I was frightened but I didn’t panic.

I went to the hospital, where they performed a lot of tests. Eventually one of the doctors came to me and said that the tests showed I was having a heart attack.

Rolanda Perkins

I was so grateful to be alive. I told myself that I was still here for a reason. I just didn’t know what that reason was yet.

— Rolanda Perkins

I was shocked! I couldn’t even register the information. I was still trying to process it when I was told that a cardiologist would be coming to examine my heart and look for any damages, like blocked arteries. After the exam, I was informed that the tests didn’t show any issues.

I realized how fortunate I was to survive this event. At that moment I said, “Thank you, Jesus,” out loud, because I was so grateful to be alive. I told myself that I was still here for a reason. I just didn’t know what that reason was yet.

From Recovery to Advocacy

I spent a week recovering at the hospital. During that time, the pain in my chest and my headache came and went again.

I remember being very anxious and feeling depressed, which I didn't know could happen after a heart attack. I didn’t share these feelings with my family, because I didn’t want them to worry about me more than they already were. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I know now that I was going through depression.

Rolanda Perkins

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I know now that I was going through depression.

— Rolanda Perkins

When I returned to work, I realized that I had developed a fear of speaking in front of people at meetings, which I’m not normally afraid to do. Also during that time, I kept hearing about a program called Toastmasters, which helps people practice their public speaking skills. I eventually joined the program and it helped me build back my confidence to become comfortable speaking in front of people again.

At one of the meetings, someone approached me and asked if I thought about volunteering with the American Heart Association (AHA). I hadn’t before, but I looked into it and found opportunities for survivors to share their stories at speaking events. Those events also helped build my confidence.

Rolanda Perkins

I recalled that moment in the hospital, when I told myself I was still here for a reason. I realized that using my experience to help others was the reason.

— Rolanda Perkins

I participated in a volunteer event at Macy’s, where I got to share my heart attack experience. From that event, I was selected as 1 of 9 women across the nation to serve as a national spokesperson for the Go Red for Women campaign.

I recalled that moment in the hospital, when I told myself I was still here for a reason. I realized that using my experience to help others was the reason.

Advocating for Heart Health

Through volunteering with the AHA and the Go Red for Women campaign, I met many other wonderful women. One of them was another national spokesperson, who offered me the opportunity to attend a symposium at Mayo Clinic with the WomenHeart organization.

WomenHeart is a patient-centered organization that provides support, education, and advocacy to women living with and at risk for heart disease. It's a 20-year old national organization with volunteers across the country. Through this organization, I serve as a WomenHeart Champion.

Champions are women living with heart disease who volunteer with WomenHeart. We’ve all completed a training hosted by the Mayo Clinic faculty. We’re active in our communities, leading support networks and providing community education about heart disease in women.

WomenHeart offers Red Bags of Courage, which include information for women about heart health. It’s the kind of resource I wish I had prior to and even after my heart attack. I ended up doing a lot of my own research after my heart attack, but it would have been so helpful to have resources up front, which is why I spend so much time advocating for women’s heart health through these organizations.

As part of my advocacy work, I volunteer with another WomenHeart champion from Nashville. Together, we do a lot of community education for women in our area, offering Red Bags of Courage and sharing our stories. We inform them about their risk factors for heart disease and symptoms to watch for.

Rolanda Perkins

It’s important to show that people experience heart attacks and symptoms differently, which is why you have to be educated on what to look for.

— Rolanda Perkins

Her story is completely different from mine. She had just given birth to her daughter when she experienced her heart attack, and her symptoms were totally unlike mine. It’s important to show that people experience heart attacks and symptoms differently, which is why you have to be educated on what to look for.

Since 2009, I’ve been involved in helping to host Wear Red Sundays at my church. February is National Heart Health Month, so we've been hosting an annual event on the last Sunday of January to put heart health on everyone’s mind before the month of February starts. It’s also an opportunity for people to be informed of and participate in National Wear Red Day, which is celebrated on the first Friday in February to help raise awareness about cardiovascular disease in women.

Since February is such a short month, and so early in the year, people tend to forget about how important their heart health is throughout the year. Being concerned with our heart health is something that needs to be on our minds daily. We don’t do this to scare people, but to help prepare them. 

Again, this work always takes me back to the day of my heart attack. The reason I’m still here is because I need to continue sharing information and helping educate women about their risks.

I’ve had women contact me to tell me that because of something I shared, they looked into a symptom or a concern and were able to address or prevent a heart health issue. Hearing stories like that is always so rewarding for me.

Educating Women About Heart Disease

One of the things I always stress to women when I speak to them about heart health is that everyone’s symptoms are different.

I did a lot of research after my heart attack, because I didn’t initially have a lot of information. I didn’t know that headaches could be a sign of a heart attack. I also didn't realize that men and women can experience different symptoms, and time of onset can differ too.

It’s important to know all the possible signs and symptoms of a heart attack. Part of sharing my story is sharing my symptoms, because headaches were not something I would have known to look for. We often associate chest pain as the main symptom, but not everyone has chest pain, and some people experience other symptoms before or more intensely than chest pain. Even though I had a headache, plenty of other women won’t because everyone experiences symptoms differently. 

Rolanda Perkins

One of the things I always stress to women when I speak to them about heart health is that everyone’s symptoms are different.

— Rolanda Perkins

So often the women I talk to are surprised by the possible signs of a heart attack, and by how common heart disease is in women. Heart disease is still the leading killer of women, and it kills more women than all cancers combined.

When I speak to women, I always encourage them to listen to their bodies. As women, we tend to take on so much, and if we experience health concerns, we sometimes brush them off or say that it’s stress-related.

However, there are times when it’s something very serious, and stress itself can lead to serious health issues, like heart attacks. Even if our bodies are telling us to slow down, we sometimes choose to ignore those warnings. 

Our bodies speak to us every single day and we must begin listening to what our bodies are telling us. This is especially true if it’s a new symptom, or something that persists. A headache that lasts for a day may not be much to worry about. However, if it lasts for a week or longer, then it’s something you should get checked out.

Knowing Your Risk

To help prevent a heart attack, it’s important to know your risk. Stress was a huge factor for me. And even though I exercised regularly, I also know that my diet could have been more heart-healthy. It’s important to reduce stress as much as possible, eat heart-healthy, and know your numbers, including your cholesterol levels and your blood pressure. These are especially important to keep in mind if you have a family history of heart disease or heart attack.

Taking Care of Yourself

During the healing and recovery process, it’s important to take care of your mental health as much as your physical health. Since I had never seen anyone in my family deal with a heart attack before, I had no blueprint to follow, and I had to learn as I went along.

Taking care of my mental health by working with a counselor was a big part of my healing process. I always tell people, “Don't be afraid to talk to someone.” Even if you haven’t had experience talking to a counselor before, or seen anyone in your family do it, there are things you might not be able to figure out on your own, and things will continue to come at you in life. It’s okay if you need that extra support and if you need it for the rest of your life.

Finding My Passion

My advocacy work has become a passion for me. I’m so grateful I get the opportunity to help other women fight and prevent heart disease.

This work has afforded me many opportunities. With WomenHeart, I get to participate in Advocacy Days, where we speak with government representatives in Washington D.C. and advocate for women’s health. I’ve also had the pleasure of appearing on national and local talk shows like "The Today Show" and "Fox TN Mornings" and appearing in publications like Women’s Day and SHAPE magazines, as well as having articles written on multiple online websites to continue the conversation about women’s heart health and to help spread the message even further.

By sharing my story with other women, I feel like I’m making a difference and doing what I’m meant to do.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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