Real Woman 2021 Melissa Sloan-Williams

A high-stress career, chronic high blood pressure and poor eating habits took a toll on Melissa Sloan-Williams, who had a heart attack at 32.

Though she was a dancer in her youth, a high-stress job as a medical assistant robbed Melissa Sloan-Williams of enough energy to walk around the block, let alone do the two-step.

Melissa was already taking medicine for high blood pressure, her weight slowly crept up and at 30, she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. “I wasn’t the spunky normal me I was back in the day,” she said, noting she didn’t feel comfortable being out in public. “I was tired all the time and so stressed out.”

One weekend, after dining out with friends earlier, Melissa, then 33, awoke in the middle of the night with pain in her left arm. Suspecting a pinched nerve, she took a pain killer, iced it and tried to get back to sleep.

A couple of hours later, however, Melissa was still in pain, so she took her blood pressure. It was sky-high. More concerned by the hour, she woke up her husband, Kenneth, who drove her to the emergency room. There, an EKG revealed she was having an active heart attack.

“I was bawling,” she said, “I thought I was going to die.”

The nurses rushed Melissa to the cath lab, where doctors discovered a 100% blockage in one of her arteries. To open it, doctors snaked a wire through her groin and up to her heart, where they placed a stent to open the blockage, restoring blood flow. Immediately, Melissa felt relief.

But that wasn’t the end of the bad news; hours later, a nurse practitioner told Melissa it would be dangerous for her to get pregnant. “I’d always wanted to be a mom,” she said. “I had a great man to have a baby with, and I couldn’t.”

In addition, doctors had found more blockages, which they went on to stent at a later date. In the aftermath, Melissa continued to have chest pains and often worried she was having another heart attack. She compares it to PTSD. “I didn’t know what anxiety was before this,” she said.

Eight months later, Melissa’s father died of a heart attack and stroke. While the loss was devastating, it made her even more determined to get healthy, filling her plate with colorful vegetables, replacing red meat with chicken and counting calories and fat grams.

At the same time, cardiac rehab inspired her to exercise more than she had in years. She lost about 90 pounds and, as a result, Type 2 diabetes has been removed from her medical diagnosis. “It’s off my chart and has been for about two years, and that’s very rare,” she explained.

Healthier than ever, in 2018, Melissa and Kenneth adopted a baby girl in an open adoption, naming her Bradleigh in honor of her late father. “We got lucky,” she said. “Being a mom is the best thing ever.”

Feeling more confidence and energy than she had in years, Melissa also slipped on her ballet shoes once again, coaching a high school dance team and teaching at a local dance studio near the couple’s home outside of St. Louis.

Since then, Melissa’s story has inspired several of her adult students to get checkups, eat better and pay attention to their numbers. “My goal is to educate women about early prevention, so they don’t have to go through what I did,” she said.