The Dallas Examiner
“I’ve been through hell and back,” said WomenHeart Board Chair-elect Rhonda Monroe as she reflected on the critical battle with her health.
At first glance, Monroe may seem like a normal mother of three and successful community activist, but underneath holds the many layers of the leading voice for the 48 million American women living with or at risk of heart disease, an illness that almost took her life.
Having reached new heights, the motivational speaker opened up about how she lost everything and was forced to rebuild her life after struggling with heart disease.
Monroe came from humble beginnings. She grew up with both of her parents in the northeast District of Columbia. But at age 17, shortly after graduating high school, her mother died as a result of a hospital error during a kidney transplant.
“They punctured her lung where she bled into her lungs,” she explained. “Then, as they were transferring her from the gurney to the bed, they dropped her head, which caused brain damage. She was 41.”
Despite the devastating blow, she pressed on with her college career at St. Mary’s University, were she earned her Bachelor of Science in business and finance.
By February 1999, Monroe entered a new life chapter in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her then-husband and her son from a previous relationship and with another son on the way. As her family changed, however, her health began to change as well. She felt fatiqued and began to have nose bleeds
“I never had a nose bleed my entire life, and I became extremely tired,” she said of this new discovery during her second pregnancy.
These hints were beyond just pregnancy symptoms but the start of a very overwhelming health saga for Monroe. Not too long after, the pregnant mother suffered a stroke that left her temporarily paralyzed on the left side of her body.
“I can’t even tell you how scary that was,” she exclaimed. “I could not move my mouth. That horrified me. In my mind, I didn’t know I was having a stroke. I was just thinking what is going on and why am I paralyzed.”
Initially, the doctor misdiagnosed her with an allergic reaction. She was eventually given an MRI scan of her brain. Monroe said she was able to recover in two days. Also, she and her baby were not left with any defects from the stroke.
After the birth of her second son, her symptoms didn’t lessen. Monroe still suffered from occasional nose bleeds and extreme fatigue that wouldn’t get checked out until five years later.
In May 2004, the then 36-year-old spokeswoman was nine months pregnant, in an abusive marriage and still enduring ailments from her previous pregnancy.
That same month, Monroe’s body gave her a sign that would save her child’s life. Her water broke unexpectedly and she was forced to drive herself to the hospital.
“I had the baby; she was five days early,” she said. “Thank God because five days later I had a heart attack.”
After giving birth, Monroe was prescribed pain medicine, but an immense sensation overtook her body that the medication couldn’t numb.
“The day before [the heart attack], I keep feeling this pain in my left arm and I was like ‘that doesn’t feel right,’” she recounted. “Something is wrong.”
Monroe placed her newborn in her crib after nursing her to sleep and, like most moms, saw an opportunity to get more rest before the infant woke up.
“I’m laying on the bed, then I just bounced right back up,” she recalls. “I felt so sick. I tried to lay down. [It] felt like an elephant was sitting right on my chest. I looked in the mirror and said ‘I think I’m having a heart attack,’ and started sweating.”
Monroe returned to the hospital that same day, only to be misdiagnosed despite an electrocardiogram test showing an acute myocardial infarction – a recurring cycle she will face most of her life.
The advocate fought against the medical center’s oversight and sought for a remedy until she finally received the answer she was looking for on the sixth night of her treatment.
“I literally kept my left foot on the ground all night, because I felt if I lifted my leg up I was going to lose my attachment to the earth,” she said as she detailed the horrifying feeling.
With three small children and an abusive husband, Monroe found aid from her neighbor during what she felt could be her final moment.
“I told her I drove myself to the delivery room, but this time I don’t have the strength,” she said tearfully as she briefly relived the past hardship.
In one last hospital attempt, Monroe waited two hours to be seen by a cardiac care doctor, where they detected she had a weeklong heart attack and placed a catheter in her groin to check her heart.
“I was told that they have done everything they could do [and] that the only thing they can do is pump blood and plasma in order to stabilize my heart, which is what they did,” she said.
The young mother’s heart was so damaged that she had to undergo emergency bypass surgery that same night. Her heart had five coronary artery dissections and underwent an additional emergency quadruple bypass surgery. The organ was so remarkable that surgeons held it in their hands and photographed it.
Recovery was hard to achieve. After the surgeries, the survivor developed Dressler Syndrome, inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart; arrhythmia, irregular heartbeat; and tested positive for V-Tach, a rapid heartbeat condition. A defibrillator was implanted in her heart September 2004, which left her in the hospital for an entire month.
As she fought for her life, her home life suffered. Her hospital bedridden state left her unable to take care of her home and unable to take care of her young children.
“It has not been easy,” she said “Believe me, fighting for your life is not an easy task. I lost so much. All I had was my life and my faith.”
In 2005, Monroe regained enough strength to take back her life. She moved away from her husband to West Virginia and returned to her hometown to receive better medical treatment at MedStar Washington Hospital.
That same year, she was presented with a motivational speaking opportunity from her cardiologist to talk about her heart disease experience at a ICD Connection conference at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The conference was a blessing in disguise, placing her in direct contact with a audience member who introduced her to WomenHeart founder Nancy Loving.
“I went to D.C. and met Nancy. Then, a little while after that she called and asked me if I would be willing to do the Today show for her,” she said.
Soon the world became more familiar with Monroe’s inspirational story. Her story was featured on the Today show, Time magazine, and in a Bayer aspirin commercial. By 2007, she became an official member of the organization and an official representative.
Light was finally shining at the end of the tunnel for the survivor but trouble began to resurface. In 2011, her bypass grafts shut down and was given a low percentage of surviving a repeat bypass. Despite surgeon’s fear of death, Monroe stated faithfully that she knew she wasn’t going to die.
During the surgery, she flatlined four times, had 15 laser holes drilled in her heart, three defibrillators implanted, stents and angioplasty. In the end, she had a tattered heart and a new sense of confidence.
“Since then, I’ve been relatively stable,” she said joyfully. “This morning, I walked 3.7 miles.
My heart is much better. It’s at the lower limits of normal now when before it was at 20 percent.”
Now, as a board chair and activist, Monroe holds enough wisdom to educate women internationally about overcoming the leading cause of death globally, according to the World Health Organization.
“I don’t know if I had not been through all of that would I have been compassionate enough, sensitive enough or bold enough,” she said. “Out of my tragedy and pain I became sensitive to the [Holy] Spirit and others that I can step in and say ‘I know all about tragedy, pain and heartbreak, and I will walk through this with you until you are strong enough to stand on your own.’”
African Americans have a higher risk of heart disease with men at 44 percent and women at 48 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease has also claimed the lives of 48,000 African American women annually.
Monroe advised anyone suffering with health issues to trust their instinct.
“Trust your gut and advocate for yourself,” she said. “If you believe something is wrong, trust that instinct and pursue and persist. No one knows you better than you.”
For caretakers and parents, it is imperative to always make sure your health is stable first before spreading yourself thin, according to Monroe.
“When you are caring for others, it is best to take care of yourself first,” she expressed.
The chair member is also aware of those who lack a support system and strongly recommends seeking an active organization with a mentor program.
“It was important for me to connect with people who understood where I was and, also, made it to where I needed to be, which was a healthy place,” Monroe said.
For information and resources, visit http://womenheart.org to seek support for those who suffer or at risk of heart disease.