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Healthier Together: How a heart attack sparked one woman’s new life mission

Cardiovascular disease kills more women than all forms of cancer combined, but it wasn’t on Susan Koeppen’s mind until Aug. 3, 2022.

“I really didn’t think a lot about heart attacks and heart health,” she recalled. “I did have a family history -- both my parents had heart disease, but you always think something’s not going to happen to you.”

Koeppen used to run 5k’s and swim regularly. She figured she was “always out of breath” because, “well, I’m older, I’m out of shape.”

“But I never got better,” she said. “I was always winded and that was as symptom, but I didn’t know that.”

Koeppen went on with her life until that early August day about 18 months ago, but she didn’t feel the symptoms one would assume someone suffering from a heart attack would feel.

“You often hear about, ‘you feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest.’ I never felt that. I never had chest pain,” Koeppen said. “I had a pain in my left shoulder blade and some pretty bad nausea. Neither one was a symptom I associated with a heart attack… even while I was in the hospital.”

The pain worsened after Koeppen laid down, so she checked herself into the hospital.

“(My nurse) recognized very quickly what was going on, when I didn’t,” she said. “(She said), ‘You’re having a heart attack’ because from the bloodwork, there was an enzyme the heart releases and that’s the only time they find it.’ So, they knew.”

“They did an ultrasound and they saw a very big blockage in a critical artery,” Koeppen continued. “They whisked me upstairs, I got a stent, and it saved my life.”

A stent is basically a permanent implant that props open a heart’s artery wall.

“It was the LAD (left anterior descending) artery and several doctors said, ‘Oh yeah, we call that a widow maker,’” she said. “Because you have this heart attack and you don’t even know you have heart disease.”

That’s when Koeppen’s road to recovery began: weeks of cardiac rehab, regular check-ups, and learning more than she ever thought she would about heart disease and nutrition.

“Really, the treatment for heart disease is a healthier lifestyle. All the things your doctor tells your for years: eat your vegetables and exercise -- all of that prevents heart disease,” she said.

Koeppen also attributes her lifesaving trip to the hospital to her father.

“What sent me to the hospital that day was remembering my father’s heart attack. When he had a heart attack, he couldn’t articulate what was wrong. He just said, ‘I feel really bad and I’ve never felt this bad before,’” she said. “I think my outlook has changed a lot since Aug. 3. Every day’s a gift. No day’s promised.”

Koeppen’s been able to live her life to the fullest since her heart attack, including a lifelong dream of hiking in Rwanda.

She’s also now a “Go Red for Women” ambassador, sharing her story and spreading the message about heart disease.

“We don’t want people to wait until they have a heart event to be aware of heart disease, so ‘Wear Red’ is to spread awareness about heart health and learn about the symptoms,” she said.

Part of her mission is to teach more people hands-free CPR, which you can learn here in about 60 seconds.

Women are often less likely to receive bystander CPR because rescuers often fear accusations of inappropriate touching, sexual assault or injuring the victim, according to the American Heart Association.

Koeppen is also spreading the message about National Wear Red Day, where people across the country are encouraged to wear red to spread awareness about heart disease.

Even past the day itself, she plans to wear red through the entire month of February.

“They’re like, ‘why are you wearing red every day?’ And then I can tell them,” she said as she smiled.