Gena Armstrong, 52, is your typical healthy and fit Memphis local. So when her cholesterol levels showed slightly elevated during a routine checkup, Gena didn’t think anything of it. 

“I figured they would let me know if there were a real concern.” 

Following a back injury, Gena took a brief respite from the gym. It was around this time she began experiencing a string of strange symptoms. 

On a rainy October Friday, Gena became out of breath after running up the stairs. That Saturday, while cleaning the house, she found herself once again short of breath with an irregular heartbeat. 

On Sunday, while at the grocery store, Gena sneezed and grew dizzy. Her heart hurt, and she couldn’t sit up. Her husband rushed her across the street to the fire department, where they checked her blood pressure and offered a ride to the hospital. 

She opted out, instead following up with her general practitioner. 

While making her bed that Monday, Gena still felt out of breath, plus painful numbness in her hands along with her earlier symptoms, and decided to leave work early to visit the doctor. 

At the office, they immediately took her vitals and called an ambulance. 

Although Gena’s blood pressure had returned to normal at the emergency room, the ER doctor found her enzymes through the roof and decided to keep her overnight for further testing and to consult the cardiologist. A heart ultrasound the following day revealed a 99% blockage in her aorta artery. 

“I was told— if you don’t have surgery right now, you will die.”Gena was rushed into surgery. 

“I took a breath; it was the first time I could fully breathe in a long time.” 

The cardiologist shared that her earlier episodes were, in fact, several mini heart attacks. 

Named after its lack of early detectability, Widowmaker is a large blockage of the main artery due to plaque, cholesterol, or bad genes. 

A person can be healthy and still suffer from inherited heart disease if genetically predisposed through family history. 

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death among women, outranking breast and ovarian cancers, yet receives significantly less spotlight. 

“As women, we sometimes just take the aches and pains or write them off. It’s important to listen to your body.” 

Post-surgery, Gena received an outpouring of support from her fitness community at Faith Inspired Training in Southaven, Mississippi, where she enjoys boot camp classes and a non-intimidating gym vibe. 

“People there are happy to see each other and check on you. They become your friends,” she says of the women-majority facility. 

Her favorite weights class is Step and Sculpt with instructor Laura Jackson. “It’s nice for somebody to push you but simultaneously believe in you. They go hand in hand.” Knowledge is power. 

To learn more about your medical history, chat with family members about their lifestyle habits, past diseases, and overall health.

By Shlomit Ovadia 

Photo by Tindall Stephens