Pine Bluff resident June Lacy is a survivor, not a statistic.
Although 1 in 5 African American women believes she’s at risk for heart disease, only 36 percent know that heart disease is their greatest health risk. The truth is, 49 percent of African American women ages 20 and older have heart disease.
Lacy was one of eight Arkansas women who were celebrated as a heart disease survivor during the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women Survivor Gallery on Jan. 31.
In 2004, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare form of cancer that attacks the lymphatic system. She received a stem cell transplant and a high dosage of chemotherapy that depleted her immune system and damaged her heart, resulting in congestive heart failure.
During this time, she was still working as a registered nurse with a pacemaker that helped her heart beat correctly when needed. By February 2016, she said the constant decline of her heart health lead to her getting a left ventricular assist device that pumped blood from the main chamber of her heart to the rest of her body. By November 2016, she received a heart transplant.
“It was only eight months and I got a heart transplant -- I feel good and my heart is doing excellent,” Lacy said.
Lacy worked as a registered nurse at Baptist Health Medical Center in critical care up until 2015, when her heart would no longer allow her to. She said now that she has been given a second chance at life, she wants to use her experience as a nurse and a heart transplant recipient to educate those that are going down the path she has traveled.
“I told my doctor I would like to help with educating patients on the left ventricular assist device. I feel like I could teach them things and they could look at me as being an example of what they’re going through and what the outcome was for me,” Lacy said.
Another way she said she hopes to pay her second chance forward is by encouraging everyone, especially African Americans, to become organ donors.
“I see the greatness of it and how it saves a life,” Lacy said. “I encourage it, and especially African Americans, because I don’t think that enough of us are donors. It saves lives, and I’m an example of that, so I encourage it because you or your loved one can live on through someone else.”
According to the office of minority health, as of 2016, the number of African American candidates awaiting an organ transplant was 29.8%, while the number of African Americans donors was only 13.5%.
Research has shown that Africans Americans are more likely to suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure, thus increasing their chances of needing an organ transplant. Research also shows that while organs can be transplanted between races, there must be some genetic similarities amongst the donor and recipient.
And because some blood and tissue types are more prevalent among specific ethnicities, it helps to have a more diverse donor pool.
In 1978, a Howard University professor and transplant surgeon named Clive Callendar explored the reason for the disproportion of African American donors to Caucasian. By having in-depth conversations with African Americans, they revealed that the participants were unaware of the need for organ donation within their community.
For some, they said it went against their religious beliefs. It was also concluded that there was distrust of health care providers due to the 1932 Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Similarly, there was a fear that hospitals would allow them to die in order to give their organs to white patients if they signed up to be an organ donor.
“I’m not going to lie, when they would ask me about being a donor at the driver’s license place, I always said no,” Lacy said. “I said, ‘I’m going to heaven with all of my pieces,’ but when you’re the one on the receiving end it is totally different. But you don’t realize it until it happens to you.”
As a medical professional, Lacy said she was aware of the high percentage of high blood pressure and heart disease cases found in African Americans while also being aware that there was a history of both in her family.
She said even if she never had to have chemo, those factors alone put her at risk for heart disease. It has also been shown that in women alone -- black and white -- nearly 80 percent of cardiac events can be prevented, yet heart disease is still the largest health threat for women.
“I want to encourage not just black women, but just African Americans, in general, to go to the doctor and check on themselves because it will sneak up on you before you even know it and it’ll be too late,” Lacy said.
“For example, the most athletic person you can think of can still have a heart attack. You think you’re fit and healthy, but you never know.”
Lacy said she is thankful for her doctor and the modern technology that afforded her the opportunity for a second chance.
“Modern technology is wonderful because years ago I probably would’ve been gone because they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to give me a transplant,” Lacy said.
She said she’s also thankful for her donor and their family. She said she plans to reach out to them one day to thank them for her second chance.
“I haven’t met my donor’s family, and I hope they want to meet me, which I think they would want to,” Lacy said. “But you never know, because I understand that they may still be grieving. I plan to meet them because they gave me a gift -- my life -- with their loved one’s life, and while I was ecstatic and happy about it, they were sad, grieving and going through pain. It’s a bittersweet thing.”
While she was going through her heart treatments and then her transplant, she said had to realize that it wasn’t just her that was going through that painful time, but also her 24-year-old son Kaleb, who lives with her.
“I noticed that he wasn’t doing well in school so I went to him one day and said, ‘Kaleb, I understand that it’s just not me that’s going through this, you have to deal with this just like me because you are scared. And I understand if you can’t focus on school -- we’re going through this together.’
“Now that we’ve gotten through it, we’re living a good life -- a better life. Life is so much better, and I thank God for all of it.”
The American Heart Association’s signature women’s initiative Go Red for Women is a comprehensive platform designed to increase women’s heart health awareness. To learn more about how to end heart disease and stroke in women visit goredforwomen.org.