Feb. 15, 2012 at 8:48 AM ET
By TODAY contributor Star Jones
Something didn’t feel right. I was really tired – not the “my life is so busy” tired – but the “dragging, fatigued, my body doesn’t feel healthy tired.” I was short of breath and experiencing intense and frequent heart palpitations. The 150 extra pounds that I’d carried around for years classified me as morbidly obese, but my breathing had improved tremendously since successful weight loss surgery years ago. So, the shortness of breath and intermittent pain were not adding up. Little did I know that these symptoms were the early warning signs of heart disease.
After a few weeks of these symptoms, my significant other insisted that I go to the doctor. Extensive testing confirmed what I had hoped never to hear – I had cardiovascular disease and needed surgery.
So many things were ailing my heart: fluid buildup, a genetic abnormality, a malfunctioning aortic valve. If I didn’t have surgery immediately, I was looking at a valve replacement, and possibly even a heart transplant in the future.
I couldn’t understand why this was happening to me now. I had beaten obesity and for the first time in my life I was hitting the gym regularly and practicing portion control in my diet. And after all that, I was about to be the face of heart disease.
When my doctors told me that they were going to crack my chest and take my heart out of my body, I sincerely considered not having the surgery. Needless to say, my girlfriends, family and doctors talked some sense into me and I made the decision to move forward.
We scheduled the surgery for one week before my 48th birthday. Amazingly, even though the doctors stopped my heart for 22 minutes on the operating table, I made it through open heart surgery without any complications. As part of my recovery, I elected to do cardiac rehab and it was the second best decision of my life. The discipline necessary to strengthen your heart after open heart surgery is relentless and exhausting; but so worth it. Twenty-four sessions later, I got my graduation hat and celebrated by walking the 12 blocks back home!
Six months after open heart surgery I took on the physical and mental challenge of competing on NBC’s "The Celebrity Apprentice" on behalf of the American Heart Association, breaking fundraising records and raising awareness of the no. 1 killer of all Americans. In 2011, I was named the American Heart Association’s National Volunteer.
I’m now living my best life in great health. I'm so proud that I spent the last few years getting myself in the best physical and emotional shape I could be in. I learned late in life that my health is my greatest asset. For as the proverb says, “she who has health has hope, and she who has hope has everything.” Heart health has become my mission in life and my hope for tomorrow.