Gail Alexander-Wright's story would make you believe there's no limit to what she could do. As an active drilling reservist in the U.S. Navy, owner of a custom cake business, hands-on mom to a teenage daughter while her husband was stationed in Iraq, and an avid exerciser, you can't help but wonder: How did she do it all?
But the truth is, like many women, Gail had to learn the hard way that doing it all was taking a toll on her body.
"I now know that fitting it all in and sleeping only four to five hours each night was not healthy," says Gail. "But I was young and generally felt good, so I didn't really think anything of my schedule."
One night, however, things changed. After wrapping up a workout, Gail began to experience the classic symptoms of a heart attack: sweating, nausea, chest pains and numbness in her arm.
Concerned, Gail's daughter reached out to her aunt, who worked as a nurse's aid in the past, advised them to call 9-1-1 immediately.
At the ER, Gail learned the root of the problem: a blockage in an artery. She was also informed that her high-stress lifestyle-coupled with an extensive family history of heart disease-meant changes needed to be made to ensure her long-term survival.
"I didn't know that my father and all of his siblings had had heart attacks relatively early in life," she says. "I also learned that my diet was not as healthy as I thought it was. My blood sugar showed that I was pre-diabetic."
All these discoveries proved too much to handle at once, and Gail suffered from depression while in the hospital.
"I was so frustrated that this had happened to me, and even more upset to find out that I was doing so many things wrong," she says.
Despite her struggles, Gail began to bounce back. At 37 years old, she was the youngest person in cardiac rehab, and making progress toward recovery. A few months later, however, she was faced with second setback: a stroke.
Unaware that blurred vision was a symptom, it took an appointment with an optometrist and then a neurologist to confirm the diagnosis. And for the second time in less than a year, Gail began the rehab process. The woman who once ran several miles with ease now had to focus on getting her walking stride back to normal.
Five years later, Gail is drastically different from the frenzied woman she once was. Still active, she monitors her exercise closely and doesn't let her heart rate get too high. She also sleeps more, gave her diet an overhaul, and has lost 30 pounds as a result.
"Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and very little red meat are what I stick to these days," Gail says.
Gail has also made her health journey a family affair. Her daughter, who is now in college, has had a cardiac check-up, lost 30 pounds and adjusted her eating habits to match her mother's.
"I have shared this journey with my daughter and as many other women as I can because I don't believe there is enough awareness about this disease-especially for women," Gail says. "I want to make sure that women young and old know that heart disease is our No. 1 killer."