Sheila Wenzel: How Go Red Saved Her Life


by Nora Bass

(Photo L to R: Michelle Sobrino-Stearns, Publisher of Variety, Sheila Wenzel, and Nancy Brown, American Heart Association CEO; Getty Images)

In October 2013, Variety magazine hosted its fifth annual “Power of Women” event, honoring the philanthropic work of actresses and celebrities including Elizabeth Banks, Nicole Kidman, Amy Poehler, Charlize Theron and Kerry Washington.

At the event, Elizabeth Banks’ short film, “Just a Little Heart Attack,” played for the audience. Banks both directed and stars in the film, created for Go Red For Women to raise awareness about heart disease in women. The film shows Banks as a busy mom hurriedly preparing for her day suddenly suffer the symptoms of a heart attack. Unaware of the symptoms (and in disbelief she could be suffering from a heart attack), Banks attempts to carry on with her morning routine – until it’s almost too late.

In the audience that day watching the film was Sheila Wenzel, a talent agent whose client list includes Amanda Seyfried, Aimee Teegarden, Katee Sackhoff, Britt Robertson, Rebecca Mader, Shantel VanSanten, Macaulay Culkin, Annabeth Gish and more. Wenzel watched the film intently.

Two months later, Wenzel was the busy mother experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack herself. Feeling pain in her jaw and tightness in her chest, Wenzel was sweating so profusely that she peeled off layers of clothing. She was the real-life equivalent of Banks’ character.

According to Wenzel’s husband, “She called her office and pushed back an afternoon meeting an hour and continued packing our seven year-old daughter’s things for their trip to New York the next morning. As the situation deteriorated and the symptoms grew worse, she said later she could literally hear Elizabeth Banks in her head saying over and over, ‘Do I look like someone who would be having a heart attack?’ Then she did something completely out of character, she reached out for help, albeit almost too late.”

Wenzel said it felt “like an episode of ER,” with her heart racing around 300 times per minute – five beats per second – and paramedics shouting “We’re losing her!” Wenzel’s primary care doctor sobbed in front of other patients in her office because she, too, thought Wenzel was lost. Doctors traced the problem to a heart defect Wenzel was born with called ventricular tachycardia, or “v-tach.” The primary doctor realized Wenzel was “a ticking time bomb” and recruited a prominent surgeon to examine her case. Once he did, he immediately canceled a trip to China. The operation proved to be more challenging than expected, lasting nearly seven hours. The doctor performed 10 “burns” to fix the trouble spot on her heart; he’d never done more than five on any patient.

The next morning, the first day of her life with a properly functioning heart, Wenzel thought, “This is how people live? Wow.” She was soon breathing and sleeping better, which has led to her being more active and even more optimistic.

“This black cloud that I didn’t realize was over me has been lifted,” she said. “Even my colleagues have told me, ‘You’re different now.'”

Taking action with Go Red For Women

Wenzel then decided it was time for action, to alert more women to the dangers of heart disease, to help them receive the same information as she did that helped save her life.

Wenzel recently attended e a “Women in Entertainment” luncheon in Los Angeles hosted by Variety and the American Heart Association. It was a chance for powerful women in the entertainment industry to hear her story for the first time and to use it as a call to action.

“My younger brother and his wife are anesthesiologists, and when I’d leave him a voice mail, I used to joke, ‘It’s your sister, the one who is just entertaining people while you are saving lives,'” she said. “Then I realized that in the entertainment business, we can actually save lives, too. An entertaining video helped save my life.”

Wenzel continues to raise heart disease awareness and inspire change in real women’s lives through Go Red For Women. On National Wear Red Day, she encouraged her clients to “text it, tweet it, social media the heck out of it,” and they did.

“I’d love to figure out a creative way for a series of videos that hit multiple demographics ­– young girls, 13-year-olds, 18-year-olds and more,” she said. “We’ve got to find some way that’s going to catch their attention and get the message out there.

“Luckily for me and our children and a lot of other people whose lives are touched by my incredible wife, she made it through that day and is now thriving again,” says Wenzel’s husband.

Watch “Just a Little Heart Attack” and learn more ways to prevent heart disease on Go Red For Women.