Real Woman 2022 Erica Annise

Erica Annise denied for years she had heart disease, but now speaks about the importance of knowing your family history.

Erica Annise learned at a young age about the “family curse” — her mother’s reference to members dying young.

Her grandfather suffered two heart attacks before dying of a third in his early 60s, and her father succumbed to a heart attack at 60 after a long history of high blood pressure.

Nobody in the family talked about the curse: heart disease.

“Talking about health is not something people always do within the community of color,” Erica said. “You don’t want to talk about the deep, dark things, but those are the things that can change your life.”

While she didn’t talk about it, Erica’s mother tried to point her in a different trajectory, emphasizing the importance of heart health. And on the outside, Erica was healthy, ultimately pursuing a jet-setting, fast-paced career in dance and modeling.

But there were signs that something wasn’t right. Some days, Erica could easily run a mile. Others, she could barely walk up three or four steps.

At 33, Erica was at a restaurant with her husband, Skip, and friends when she started to sweat and feel sick. Her arm felt heavy. Moments later, her eyes rolled into the back of her head, and she lost consciousness. When she woke up, she learned she was in the cardiac ICU.

“I thought it was because I had acquired high blood pressure,” she said, noting she only took her medication when she felt bad instead of daily as prescribed. “I thought it was just a passing thing.”

It was the first of several episodes over the next seven years. Desperately wanting a child, she became pregnant three times over the same period. In each case, their hearts stopped beating in utero.

“My body just couldn't support two people,” she said.

Even when she accepted that she had heart disease, she turned down offers to share her story publicly, fearing it would change the way people saw her.

Despite her reluctance to go public, she attended a Go Red for Women luncheon with her mother. During the event, her mother passed her a check she made out to the organization. The memo line indicated it was in honor of her daughter, “a heart disease survivor.”

“I cried, because I realized she saw me that way,” Erica said.

Soon after, Erica shared her journey at AHA events.

The organization then became family. When Erica had a stroke in 2015, they showed up at the hospital, providing much-needed emotional support.

A cardiologist then informed her that she had congestive heart failure. Her ejection fraction, a measure of how much blood the left ventricle pumps out, was only 18%. A normal ejection fraction is between 50% and 70%.

Erica sought treatment at the Mayo Clinic, where she was diagnosed with left ventricular non-compaction or LVNC, which causes the left ventricle to be spongy rather than smooth, increasing the risk for arrhythmias, stroke and other dangerous heart issues.

During a routine procedure, Erica’s heart stopped.

“Just by God’s grace, I came back and got a second chance to share my testimony,” she said.

Eager to make a positive impact, Erica talked with her niece and nephew about heart disease, telling them she had “bugs in her heart” to help them understand.

She also shares her story at AHA events and posts about heart health on her website and via social media. She urges others, especially women of color, to listen to their body, learn their family history and advocate for themselves.

“Because I had lost three children, I realized my legacy was going to be touching strangers,” she said. “What kind of woman of color would I be to not share my story with other women of color?”