Julia Allen and her husband, Troy
Courtesy Julia Allen

It was a wake-up call when Julia Allen, then only 44, sat in a hospital realizing that she had just survived, not one, but two heart attacks on the same day: April 15, 2013.

“[During the ordeal] I was thinking about all the other things that were going on. Who was going to cook dinner tonight? The boys won’t have anyone to help them with their homework,” Allen tells The Root, ticking off the thoughts she had even as she was in pain. “I got this conference call at work; who’s going to do that? I hadn’t gone to the grocery store … all that stuff was going through my mind. If I have to go sit in the hospital for four hours and they tell me nothing’s wrong, I just wasted so much time. I just need to go home and lay down for about an hour, take some ibuprofen and I’ll be fine … that is honestly what I was thinking.”

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It was that day when she vowed to change her life—out of necessity, admittedly, more than anything. But since recovering, she has also made it her mission to educate as many women as possible—especially African-American women—so that they will not make the same mistakes she made and suffer unnecessarily.

Allen, who was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, and now lives in Charlotte, N.C., was recently chosen as one of nine 2015 national American Heart Association spokeswomen from across the country and is letting her story be heard. “Unfortunately it’s not a group that you want to be selected for because you have to have a heart problem to get into it,” she jokes. “[Each of us has] different heart abnormalities, from heart attacks to stroke to congenital heart defects … [but] I’m excited to use this opportunity to help other women.”

The stats are clear. According to Million Hearts, a government website managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for American women, killing more than 400,000 each year. African-American adults of both genders are 40 percent more likely than their white counterparts to have high blood pressure and 10 percent less likely to have this condition under control.

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It’s safe to say that if you’re an African-American woman, the odds are usually stacked against you.

According to Allen, there are factors you can and cannot change. Some of those you can’t change are, obviously, your age, race and family history.

Even though she is relatively young, Allen’s family history was one that should have given her pause. Her two parents had heart disease; one of them also had diabetes, which increased the risk even further. In addition, three of her four grandparents suffered from heart disease.

Case in point: Tests on her children after her heart attack showed that her eldest son, then only 12, had high cholesterol—the same child whom she called a “picture of health,” who competed in track and field and football, among other sports. Luckily, it is something that the family is now managing through healthy eating, but still, Allen sometimes wonders …

“Having high cholesterol at this young age, you’re going to start getting some buildup in those arteries. My son could have had a heart attack at 20. Who knows? Gone unwatched, who knows what might have happened to him?” she asks.

But then there are the things you can change, little and big habits, such as stopping smoking, improving your diet and getting more exercise

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“My father grew up in the South. [He ate] fried chicken or pork chops every day. No matter what my mother cooked for dinner, he had to have that fried chicken and pork chops,” Allen recalls, laughing. “We ate a lot of fried food; heavy, creamy mashed potatoes with sour cream; and the mac and cheese, the collard greens … ”

I care so much about everyone else around me that it was just inconceivable for me to put myself first or even think about myself. As women that’s what we are, that’s what we do. … We just have to learn to put ourselves in the equation.

Before that fateful day in 2013, Allen’s doctor had already suggested that she start making changes, recommending seeing a nutritionist and getting more exercise. But as a mother with three young boys, a job and a home to manage, Allen just did not have the time to invest in herself, to the point that even when her first heart attack started that morning at work, it took hours for her to convince herself to invest in the time to go to the emergency room. 

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“I care so much about everyone else around me that it was just inconceivable for me to put myself first or even think about myself,” she says. “As women that’s what we are, that’s what we do. We’re naturally nurturers. We just have to learn to put ourselves in the equation.”

Carving out time for herself is something that Allen is still working on, but she has learned a lot from the ordeal and is making strides to help other women and make them more aware of the issues they may face. After all, what ultimately prompted her to call her doctor (who told her to get to the hospital) in 2013 was visiting the AHA’s Go Red for Women website and identifying with the stories she read there.

“I have a passion for getting information out to African-American women because we have such a high incidence of heart disease, and just [through] sharing my story and the mistakes that I made.” she says. “I’m just really hoping to help another mom, another woman, another African-American female, hopefully to just not have to go through what I went through.”  

Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.