#1 Killer of Women: A Lesson From Mom

February - One way to save a mom during American Heart Month!

February is American Heart Month and 2013 is the 10th Anniversary of Go Red For Women Day! Don’t forget to celebrate all the women in your life!

On February 1st, I lit up my Jersey City office in a radiant red outfit in a symbolic gesture to show support for the fight against THE #1 killer of women - heart disease! I did it for my beloved mother and to celebrate women everywhere.

Ten years ago this horrible disease erupted in a final heart attack which silenced my mom's incredible voice and closed her gorgeous blue eyes forever.

Perhaps this year her story can save the life of someone else's mom, daughter, sister, wife, aunt, cousin or friend as we finally use our courage to talk a few important women's health issues through?

How many anniversaries do women have to statistically miss before we realize it's time to put a big neon sign on every package of cigarettes with a warning label that reads, "Using this product to indulge in this particular repeat behavior has a good chance of putting you in a Medical Center where doctors will break open your chest cavity while they put you on a heart-lung machine so your heart can keep a beat with the help of technology while they clear your clogged arteries?"

The last instruction on the warning should read, "Please take a moment to think about the millions of women who used this product and whose lives were cut short by 16 years before you make the choice to send nicotine-induced plaque through your own system! Now you may proceed to the register."

Mom grew up in the 'Salutatory Age of Smoking' - meaning smoking was welcomed as an acceptable & highly fashionable habit which was picked up by her and millions of other American teenagers & young adults in the 1940's, 1950's and beyond…

This act was greeted as some kind of tribal right-of-passage that everyone went through on their way to adulthood. And okay - let's join the chorus... Big Tobacco's marketing, advertising & branding campaigns were the best Madison Avenue had to offer in those days, but in the end even that Madison Avenue hunk - 'The Marlboro Man' - died of cancer.

Some people can stop smoking without a moment's notice or on a dime as some would say. For others - like mom - they could engage in a lifetime-of-trying and still fail at kicking the habit. We all know people in this category.

My wide eyes were fixated on her beautiful silhouette throughout my elementary school years and I mostly saw the strongest and smartest woman I had ever known. By 8th grade, mom had all of us convinced we could become President of the United States if we put our minds to it and worked hard. I never once noticed the outline of a cigarette in her hand. 

In our house, eight kids certainly made for a lot of mouths and egos to feed, but mom made herself available to be everybody else's rock too. She was that special woman so many people turned to and called for help. And yes - I mean "everyone" - including friends, friends of friends, colleagues, cousins, strangers and foes alike!

If you knew the number of teenagers who turned to the embrace and warmth of my parents for loving support between the 1960's and 1980's or counted how many of them actually lived in or dined with us at our home - your definition of "selfless" would be altered forever.

That term "selfless" would stay with mom until the day she died in 2003. Ten years have passed, so I guess it's okay to ask if being selfless is actually a healthy choice at all times? In the early years, it never dawned on me that perhaps she never left enough time or energy to focus on herself...

"How did she do it?" I started wondering when my own children arrived. At times, could it be that exhaustion and the bad news or challenges of others impacted the quality of her life too?  Of course they did.

I've figured out that logic tells women one thing; but life's demands, stress and our own emotions beat to a drum that can take all of us off the proverbial cliff if we're not careful! So why don't we all take better care of ourselves?

What happened to the airline rule of putting the oxygen mask on ourselves first before assisting others? An instruction so simple to think about, but so difficult for most women to achieve.

What I do know is that my mom waged a 40-year valiant and silent battle that didn't feel like anyone else's business until I lost her when she was only 69 years old.  I make it a point to Go Red for mom because her story can help other women and their families not only during American Heart Month but for the rest of their lives.

I remember mom wearing the nicotine patches, literally smoking pipes and cigars, attending hypnosis & smoking cessation courses with a friend named Jude at the community college, chewing that special gum, and submersing entire cartons of cigarettes in wastebaskets of water to banish the tangible temptation from our home. Each effort was short-lived. Nothing worked. But she never ever stopped trying.

In the 1960's & 1970's she was ahead of her time as she exercised-for-endorphins to the greatest hits of Herb Albert & the Tijuana Brass - that was before there were ever aerobic classes in any neighborhood! My love affair with brass instruments started because mom used them as a backdrop to jump-start these moments to good health and actions designed to make a difference. Sadly priorities - other than her own - always got in the way.

She walked the Pt. Pleasant Beach Boardwalk with the best of friends and relatives seeking inspiration and motivation; she cleaned our house like a fiend to eliminate all smells & signs of smoke, (I'm talking wall washing & windows open in winter!). She literally hated the smell of cigarette smoke.

When I put all her efforts into one paragraph a few years ago, the reality screamed at me that "she had fought hard" so it's no wonder she would warn all her grandchildren before she died to navigate away from this deadly habit that required bringing fire from a match close to her radiant face every single day.

As I anxiously waited for her to survive through seven vascular surgeries of the legs, neck and beyond, followed by quadruple open heart surgery and abdominal aortic surgery, the painful reality regarding the power of nicotine could not be more clear. It mostly controls you including when and how you'll die.

One unbelievable moment of clarity arrived without warning or a label to prepare me. My mother requested I drive her straight to a 7-11 store for cigarettes as the first stop from open heart surgery @ Jersey Shore Medical Center to home. The request left me breathless and defeated.

I didn't want to; and I knew others would have made a different decision, but I did it. Mom was sitting in my car with a heart-shaped pillow protecting the giant incision up-and-down her chest and she was suffering. My gosh - It had been hard enough to watch her in this struggle with herself when she was strong, so pushing back when she was physically weak was not an option that morning.

After I purchased those cigarettes, I could feel my heart silently screaming in pain because it felt as if the razor-sharp scalpels used to save mom's life had just etched a message in my gut that I knew one day I was supposed to write for her: "Don't do as she did; just don't smoke!"

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Betsy February 10, 2013 at 09:34 PM
WOW...RIP Mom. She did not grow up with anti smoking education or seatbelt education. Smoking got her I guess and not an MVA....remember the sweet love and care that made you the strong woman you are today. And the hindsight knowledge of what smoking did to her health was her unknown gift she gave to her grandchildren and perhaps her children.....
michael mirra February 13, 2013 at 12:24 PM
My Mother died of Heart Failure, My Father died of Heart Failure. They both smoked about 2/3 of their lives, but quit in their older years. Smoking may have had something to do with their health. My Father had slight emphysema that also must have hastened his death. Smoking helped cause that.
Phyllis Bregman February 13, 2013 at 12:39 PM
Lovely testament to your mom. I am a healthy woman, low BP and cholesterol, but I had a heart attack 22 months ago caused by many decades of smoking. On the operating table after receiving a stent, I asked my doctor if I could go home. I wanted to smoke. He laughed and then turned very serious and told me I almost died, and if I wanted to live to see my grandchildren grow up, etc., I had to stop smoking instantly. I haven't had a cigarette since. I've been a daughter, mother, wife, executive but stopping smoking is by far the most difficult thing I have done. I admire that your mom tried. Keep the memories flowing.
Karen S.Brady February 13, 2013 at 02:51 PM
Beautiful tribute to your mom..I am so sorry for your loss, I lost both parents WAY to early to cigarette -related diseases. I also remember when the started the NATIONAL smoke out every NOV and I though as a kid I could get my parents to stop. Keep up your healthy attitude and I am sure your making her proud !!


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