GREENFIELD — For 10 years, the American Heart Association has put on a campaign to raise awareness of heart disease in women.
It’s been a decade of little red dresses and inspiring stories from those who have overcome illness. But on a more serious note, it’s been a movement to remind women that heart disease is their No. 1 killer – and 80 percent of the time, it’s preventable.
Helping to spread the word are the “Go Red for Women” ambassadors, whose motto this year is “Real Women, Real Change.”
Each year, the program seeks to honor those who have overcome challenges and are living heart-healthy lifestyles. The ambassadors serve as representatives of the campaign and work to empower others to take steps toward healthier living.
This year, the campaign has recognized two Greenfield women whose stories, organizers say, serve as an inspiration to others.
Setting an example
Tammy Ditto remembers what it was like to lose her breath after one flight up the stairs in her Greenfield home. At more than 320 pounds, it wasn’t unusual for simple tasks to leave her winded.
As a nurse working with patients recovering from open-heart surgery, Ditto knew well the risks she was placing on her body by overeating and failing to exercise.
And when she spoke with her patients about the lifestyle changes they would need to embrace following surgery, she felt like a fraud.
“There I am, a walking billboard for everything you should not do,” said Ditto, 47.
In June 2012, Ditto decided it was time to make a change.
That was 170 pounds ago.
When Ditto says that number out loud, she knows most people assume she had bariatric surgery.
And while that might be the solution for some, Ditto said surgery was never an option for her. She’d seen too many people in 25 years of nursing who re-gained their weight, suffered life-long complications or even died as a result of the procedure.
And so, Ditto set out on a 14-month journey of losing weight the old-fashioned way, by eating less and doing more.
She enrolled in a medical weight-loss program, which connected her to doctors and dietitians who took her through the process in a healthy, sustainable way.
And she counted calories like her life depended on it.
Because it did.
“I was right there on the borderline for diabetes; my vitamin and mineral values were all out of whack,” she said, ticking off examples of the risks she faced.
Swearing off excess sugar was one of the first major steps.
“It was my drug of choice,” she said. “I could never eat one cookie; I had to eat 12.”
Today, Ditto finds that people she’s known for years sometimes don’t recognize her at a glance.
Not only does she look better; she has more energy than she knows what to do with.
Ditto exercises daily, at home on the treadmill when she has to and out on the Pennsy Trail when weather permits. She’s run two half marathons, a feat that would have been impossible two years ago.
Part of the process was zeroing in on the motivation to lose weight. She created a list, and she has a reminder set in her phone that tells her to look at it daily.
“There are things as simple on that list as being able to wear knee-high boots again to being able to watch my girls graduate and get married.”
Ditto said having lost the weight has affected many parts of her life, including the example she’s able to set for her patients.
“I don’t feel like a fraud when I talk to my patients anymore,” she said. “When they feel like it’s hopeless, I can tell them that it’s not. It can be done.”
Steps to recovery
When Brittany Jordan read the list of qualities for the American Heart Association’s ambassadors, one person came to mind – her mom.
If anyone knows about taking steps to make positive changes, it’s Melody Jordan, who suffered both a heart attack and a stroke in 2012 but faces each day of her recovery with courage and grace, her daughter said.
The challenges have been many. The stroke robbed Jordan, 55, of some of her fine motor skills on her right side, and she suffers from aphasia, a communicative disorder that affects how Jordan accesses the language center of her brain. That makes it difficult for her to find and form the words she needs.
Brittany Jordan, 24, said she and her mother have always been close, so it hasn’t been as hard as one might expect for Brittany to hop in and finish her mother’s sentences as needed.
“I feel like I can always read her mind a little bit,” she said.
Jordan’s happy for the help. Of course, she always knows what she wants to say; it’s just a matter of finding the words and remembering their order.
“All the time,” she said on a recent afternoon in her Greenfield home, explaining the frustration she faces at not always being able to communicate how she feels.
Jordan wears a bracelet bearing a message that is important to her and others who battle similar conditions: loss of language, not intellect.
Looking back, Jordan says she’s not sure what she might have done differently. In her case, she was the victim of genetics. Heart disease runs in her family.
Jordan suffered her heart attack in July, just a day after the family had gathered for a festive Fourth of July pool party at her Greenfield home.
The surgery to repair the damage from her heart attack went smoothly, but Jordan had trouble waking up from the anesthetic.
When she finally came to, it was clear something was wrong. Doctors soon learned Jordan had also suffered a stroke.
While Jordan can’t change her own circumstances, she does pester family members to make sure they are checked for signs of heart disease.
Brittany said she now has a cardiologist to make sure she takes any preventive steps necessary to avoid falling victim.
In the past two years, Jordan has made considerable strides. She enjoys many of the same pastimes she did before her illness, including quilting.
Her latest project is a pillow with red ribbon pattern – a sign of the American Heart Association.
Jordan is currently in speech therapy and is now working on putting together sentences.
And Brittany continues to cheer her on.
“I’m always seeing improvements,” she said.