Real Woman 2022 Shemeka Campbell

Having endured numerous heart problems, Shemeka Campbell urges others to listen to their bodies.

Shemeka Campbell, 34, knew her heart problems were getting worse.

She began seeing a cardiologist at age 24 and was hospitalized due to an irregularly fast heart rate and dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the heart can’t pump blood effectively because the left ventricle, the main pumping chamber, is enlarged and weakened.

A few years later, doctors diagnosed Shemeka with congestive heart failure. When her heart pumped blood at a significantly lower rate than normal, she changed her lifestyle and took medication. But she resisted more aggressive treatment — until her sister, Shemia, suddenly died one Thanksgiving night.

“The passing of my sister was a wakeup call because she was 31 when she passed away and part of it was cardiac related,” Shemeka said. “So, for me, it said, ‘Hey, you have this condition that you know there’s a device that can possibly save you, and your heart is getting weaker, so you need to get it.’”

The following year, Shemeka agreed to have an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, placed in her chest. It could prevent sudden death by shocking her heart back into a normal rhythm if a life-threatening arrhythmia was detected.

“My ICD actually saved my life this past June,” said Shemeka, who went into ventricular fibrillation at home. “When I was passed out, my ICD was activated, and it shocked me and saved my life.”

Raised by her father and grandmother, Shemeka later learned more about the history of heart problems among women on her mother’s side of the family: Her maternal grandmother had a heart transplant; her great-grandmother had a heart issue; a great aunt needed an ICD; and her sister had an enlarged heart as well as high blood pressure and obesity.

“It’s incredibly important to know your family’s health history,” Shemeka said, adding that lifestyle changes can help prevent bad outcomes.

For the Milwaukee woman, reducing stress was critical. Not only was Shemeka helping care for her grandmother, who had dementia, and her father, who had cancer, she worked in a high-stress environment as a 911 dispatcher.

“As calm as I may have been on the outside, the inside said differently and that added stress on my body,” said Shemeka, a problem solver who loves helping people. “I needed to take time off because I believe I was literally killing myself from the day-to-day stress.”

Shemeka also had to learn to pace herself to help her struggling heart.

“I was the type of person who was on the go, generally carefree, not conscious of what my body was telling me,” she said. “Oftentimes, your body is telling you something, but you’re not hearing it.”

Today, at 34, Shemeka is married, has a small business making treats and confections, and is glad to be alive after surviving a severe bout of COVID-19 that left her hospitalized for a month.

“I was intubated twice,” she said. “My heart function decreased significantly. My kidneys failed. I was on dialysis. It was very hard, to say the least, but I made it through.”

Shemeka encourages others to know and listen to their body.

“If it doesn’t feel right, in some cases it may not be right,” she said. “Know your blood pressure numbers. Check your heart rate. Don’t think once your heart is racing that it’s just anxiety. It could be some sort of cardiac event that’s occurring. For me, that was the case.”