Listening to your body can help young women survive heart disease

When she was 30 years old, Essence Harris Banks lived a busy lifestyle. She was the mother of a 3-year-old, a full-time worker, and a personal trainer. She didn't have time to slow down--until one day she had to.

"I was carrying my son, Jaden, inside, who was three at the time, and I was just winded," Essence remembers. "Brought him inside and had to sit on the sofa for maybe like 15 minutes straight until I caught my breath."

Essence knew something was wrong. She went to see her doctor, who said she was just working too hard.

That explanation wasn't good enough for Essence. So, she went to a cardiologist, who also didn't see anything at first.

"He said, 'You know what? If you were 15 years older' -- so remember I am only 30 -- 'I would have immediately done a stress test,'" she says. A stress test monitors your heart on a treadmill to determine how your heart handles exercise.

The cardiologist ordered one for Essence.

"We do the test. And I stay on for like 9.38 which I remember so vividly," she says. "So, I jump off, he takes the picture of my heart--you know the ultrasound--and he just looks at me. And he's like, 'You were right. Something is wrong.'"

Two of her arteries were 90% blocked. At 30 years old, Essence needed surgery to open them up.

"In recovery is when he said, 'Essence, you now have heart disease.' And, I go, 'What is that?' And, I look at my mom and I'm like, 'What is heart disease?'"

She didn't know much about heart disease at the time. So, she got busy again learning.

"For me, I listened. And then I took action," says Essence. "And, then I educated myself on the symptoms and risk factors and heart disease and how prevalent it is in our community, being the number one killer of women. And, then it's one in three women will die of heart disease every year."

In the 13 years after her surgery, Essence has moved on to educating others. She founded Hearts N Hands, an organization with the mission of teaching young girls about heart disease and prevention. And, among the many lessons she teaches, one is vital.

"My number on top advice is for women to listen to your body," she says. "Your body never lies."

The American Heart Association's New Orleans Heart Walk is this Saturday (Nov. 11). The one-mile walk starts at 10 a.m. at Champions Square near the Superdome. Check-in is at 9 a.m.