2024 Go Red for Women Class of Survivors: Erika Livingston

The following is Erika's story and not an endorsement or diagnosis. Stories have been edited down for time.

Erika Livingston suffered a heart attack at 41. Her message to other women? Listen to your body. It could save your life.

Erika Livingston woke up from a dead sleep and sat straight up in bed with a sharp pain in her chest. It quickly radiated to her back and grew exceedingly worse. She tried walking it off before heading to the bathroom, where sweat poured onto the ground from her face and arms.

Erika was freezing and thought it might be because she has scleroderma, an autoimmune disease, which causes her fingers and toes to get really cold. She drew herself a bath, but when she couldn’t get comfortable, she cried out for her husband. He asked if she wanted to go to the hospital, and Erika said yes.

At the emergency room near their home in suburban Dallas, the doctor told Erika she was having a heart attack. In shock, she grabbed her husband’s hand and started to cry.

“I’m 41. I work out all the time. I eat healthy, take my medicine. There's no way, no way that I'm having a heart attack,” Erika said.

Her path to care hit two serious roadblocks that day. A helicopter was going to fly her to a hospital equipped with a lab to check the internal workings of her heart, but a layer of morning fog nixed that. As the ambulance carrying Erika began the 20-mile trip to Dallas, she prayed. Then she felt her head jar. The ambulance was involved in an accident. Erika waited anxiously for 20 minutes before they got back on the road.

At the hospital, a cardiologist determined one of Erika’s arteries was 75% blocked. She received a stent to restore maximum blood flow. Erika was told her autoimmune disease contributed to her heart attack.

“Your life just flashes before you,” she said. “I’m too young. I cannot leave this earth right now. I’m not ready.”

As part of her recovery, Erika attended cardiac rehab to learn how to work out safely again. Nurses monitored her activity. The other people in the class were 70- and 80-year-olds who thought Erika was in the wrong room until she told them she had had a heart attack.

“It’s mind-blowing because you look at me and you think, ‘Wow, she's so young, and she's tiny, she's fit, there’s no way this girl would ever have a heart attack,’” Erika said.

In the two months before her heart attack in June 2021, Erika was bothered by some symptoms, but she didn’t connect them to her heart. She got short of breath while hiking with friends on a girls’ trip and would get winded walking from the store to her car. She thought whatever it was would go away.

Her message to others is listen to your body.

“If something hurts, if something is bugging you, if you don't feel normal, not one bit normal, you feel off, go find out what it is, because you never know what is happening internally,” she said.

After her heart attack, the self-described “200-mile-per-hour girl” drastically altered her workaholic lifestyle. Erika still works at her marketing job and keeps the books for her husband’s business. However, she eliminated a lot of stress by closing the hair salon that she owned. The couple now works less and travels more.

“I was given a second chance, and I told myself I'm going to live it right,” she said. “I just take life, every moment of it, I take it in, because you never know what's going to happen.”

As part of that second chance, the first-generation American, whose parents are from Mexico, wants women to know that heart disease is their greatest health threat, claiming 1 in 3 lives.

“I would like to bring as much awareness as possible and to save one life, even if it’s one life only,” she said. “If I could help one person, then I’m happy.”

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