This post was originally published on Defender Network

By Laura Onyeneho

When it comes to Black women and other people of color, raising awareness about health disparities in the community doesn’t stop at national themed months. It is an everyday journey of learning and unlearning poor health choices, understanding systemic barriers, lack of access, self-advocacy, and quality care.

According to the American Heart Association, half of all Black women in the United States have some form of heart disease, but only 1 in 5 Black women believes it is personally a risk.

Tannie Coward, 60, is a Houston resident whose life changed instantly when she was diagnosed with heart failure. The former court service officer and wedding and event planning business owner put her career at a halt to prioritize her health while helping other women through a new initiative called Hear Your Heart. It offers tailored solutions and educational content to spark proactive conversations about heart failure and action steps around it.

The Defender spoke with Coward about life before her diagnosis, her journey to accessing quality care from a Black women’s perspective, and the lessons she has learned along the way.

Defender: How was life before your diagnosis of heart failure?

Tannie Coward: Life was pretty fast-paced. I was a court service officer for Harris County for approximately 20 years. I worked in the criminal justice field in Houston. In total, I worked in the field for 33 years. It was a pretty stressful job. I was very active and had my own business as a wedding and event planner and been an entrepreneur for about 15 years. I played golf, I was the president of a book club. I was always on the go and never slowed down.

Defender: When did you feel something was wrong?

Coward: I’d always felt that there was something off with me medically. I just didn’t know what it was. This happened about 15 years ago. I was always short of breath, I gained quite a bit of weight. I went to my primary care doctor many times and was given a diagnosis of acid reflux. I’m at the age of menopause so I was told it was normal for me to gain weight. I took medicine and I thought it was working and it wasn’t, and I believed the doctor because she’s an expert. Things continued to get worse.  

Defender: What led to your official diagnosis?

Coward: I had an upper respiratory infection because it was getting hard for me to breathe at night. I woke up gasping for air. So I went to the urgent care in the area where I live. The doctor took some X-rays and had a shocked look on his face and told my fiancé at the time to take me to a large hospital along with my X-rays on a jump drive. The doctor wasn’t at liberty to say what he thought it was without verifying it at the hospital.

The doctor at the hospital took me to do X-rays again and I had already been there for five days running tests. A cardiologist came in to ask about my family history. My dad died of a massive heart attack at age 45. My older brother has congestive heart failure. I learned that the doctors removed 38 pounds of fluid from me. That is when I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, meaning that it is hereditary. It’s nothing I did in particular but they wanted to keep me a few days to see how damaged my heart was.

Defender: Talk about the decisions you had to make after your diagnosis

Coward: I immediately quit my job because it was stressful. I worked for 33 years at my job so I was already able to retire. Same with my wedding and event planning business. After my diagnosis, everything made sense about why I was so tired after my events.

Defender: What was your healthcare experience like? 

Coward: Before my diagnosis, I would go for my regular checkups, I would listen to what the doctor said and never question them because they were experts. Now after my diagnosis, my outlook is entirely different. I understand that these medical professionals are experts but they are not experts on my body. I’m a big advocate for myself, other women of color, and women with heart disease. When I go to the doctor, I have a notepad to take notes. If I have questions, I’m not leaving the office until all my questions are answered. I should have dug a little deeper.

Defender: Who did you lean on for emotional and mental support?

Coward: My support system was my family. I got diagnosed seven years ago and I’ve been married for seven. I was planning my wedding at the same time. My husband supported me. I have three adult children who continue to stand by me. I joined a support group of women and people who have heart disease. It’s one thing for family to support me, but they have no idea what I’m going through, so it was good to find a safe space to share my challenges.

Hear Your Hear Initiative

Defender: How did you learn about the Hear Your Heart Initiative?

Coward: I’m an ambassador for a program called Women Heart. What I did was turn my mess into a message. I couldn’t find anyone who looked like me and had heart disease. I searched the internet for groups, and I learned that organizations contact Women Heart and ask them for someone who can speak on certain topics. The board was looking for a woman of color who could be an advocate. That’s how I got connected with the Hear Your Heart Initiative. It gives me the opportunity to share my story with other women.