BR woman becomes national spokeswoman for heart health

Mary Leah Coco
Mary Leah Coco

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A Baton Rouge woman is using her personal struggle with heart disease to fight for the health of other women as a national spokeswoman for the American Heart Association.

Mary Leah Coco is a mother, a wife, a blogger and an employee of LSU. At just 32 years old, she is also the face of heart disease.

"I had a normal EKG, normal blood pressure. My weight was good; all the signs were okay," said Coco about the doctor's visit that changed her life. "They did an echocardiogram, which is a sonogram of your heart, and it showed that I only had 10 percent of my heart function. The diagnosis was dilated cardiomyopathy."

Dilated cardiomyopathy is a condition in which the heart becomes weakened and enlarged, much like a balloon that is over inflated. Coco explained that she was pregnant with her daughter, Annie, when her mother was diagnosed with a hole in her heart.

Two years later, she decided to get checked out herself. Even with a family history of heart disease, the Baton Rouge native never imagined she was in the final stages of heart failure. Looking back, she says signs that something was wrong were always there.

"I was exhausted. But, my little girl just turned two. I was finishing my PhD full time. I'm a wife. I work full time, and so all of those symptoms I had an excuse," said Coco. "I'm exhausted; well I'm doing too much. My heart is racing; I had too much caffeine. My feet are a little swollen; I really shouldn't have eaten that fried shrimp po-boy."

Coco says those excuses are the reason so many women die each day from heart disease.

"Heart disease is more than a heart attack. It's not just crushing pain to your chest. It can be valve disease; it could be a leaky aorta. It could be anything. Women just have to take their lives and their health seriously," said Coco.

Coco will ultimately need a heart transplant to survive.  Meanwhile, a defibrillator was implanted in her chest to keep her to monitor her heart rhythm, and she takes about nine medications daily.

She says some days are better than others, but each day is a blessing that she tries to live to the fullest with her husband and their four year old daughter.

She says her family has been a huge support.  Her daughter, upon learning that her mom needed a transplant, even suggested that they go to the build a bear factory where they could pick out a new heart.

"I just want her to know that her mother loved her more than anything," said Coco. "Through the American Heart Association and because of my diagnosis I think I'm going to be more than pictures on the wall at the end of the day."

Coco got involved with the American Heart Association to be an advocate for women's health.  Now, she has been picked as one of ten national spokeswomen for the 2013 Go Red for Women Campaign.

See her testimony here.

She will be a co-host of the Go Red launch party in New York City in February, and the keynote speaker for the Capital Area Go Red event.

"Our goal is to advocate for women's heart health, to start that conversation, because if you don't have the conversation things are never going to change," said Coco.

According to the AHA, one in three women will be affected by heart disease in her lifetime.  Heart disease is also the number one killer of women, more than any cancer or other condition.  One reason for this, says Coco, is that the symptoms for women are completely different than men.

Coco says she is living proof of why every woman should have a cardiovascular wellness check.  She also says; if you feel like something is wrong don't be afraid to push for more tests or exams with your doctor.

"It's your body and you know when something is off and something is wrong. You have every right to find a doctor that will treat you the way you need to be treated, that will run the tests that need to run. Maybe something won't come out of it, but you have a right to do that," said Coco.

The American Heart Association even has smart apps that can be downloaded on your smart phone. These apps help with everything from first aid to finding a walking path.

The local Go Red for Women Luncheon will be February 22, 2013, at the Baton Rouge River Center. The AHA Capital Area hopes to reach an audience of more than 900 to spread the word about heart health.

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