Jennifer Handley's mother, Paula, exercised, ate a relatively healthy diet, and didn't drink. But she had one bad habit: She was a heavy smoker.
"It was just a different time," Handley, a patient service representative at St. Joseph Health, St. Mary in Apple Valley, recalls. "I started smoking as a teenager. My parents weren't happy about it but they were smokers. My whole family was smokers."
Paula Handley was 53 when she called her daughter one night saying she was having some kind of attack. Handley met her parents at the emergency department at St. Mary. Her scared mother had suffered a minor heart attack.
She was scheduled for an angioplasty but died after suffering a massive heart attack during an angiogram.
Handley and her father Ed were devastated.
"It was the most shocking and horrible thing for the family," says Handley, who shared her story to raise awareness of heart disease as part of American Heart Month this month. Her mother was her best friend and hadn't had previous health problems. Ed Handley blamed the cigarettes. Six months later, he had his own personal health challenge. He was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, which he battled for nearly four years. He died in 2005.
The loss of her parents motivated Handley to take better care of herself.
"I looked back on all the damage that cigarettes caused my family," Handley said. "I wanted to break the Handley tradition of everyone dying young. Smoking is the most dangerous thing you can do to yourself. It hit me like a brick. This killed my mom. I just decided then that I needed to change my whole lifestyle."
She quit smoking, began eating a healthier diet, and focused on exercise.
Handley gets up between 4:30 and 5 a.m. during the week so she can go to the gym before work. She walks, runs and gets in at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day. She says she feels good.
"It's so important to make wise choices for your heart; damage can be irreversible," she said. That includes a healthy diet, which Handley follows. She eats a lot of chicken, lentils, beans and vegetable soups and only eats red meat twice a year.
She now has perfect blood pressure and great cholesterol. "I can't believe I did that to my body," she says of smoking.
She wishes she could go back in time and never pick up a cigarette. She wishes her parents were here to see how healthy she is and how good she feels now. That could be their final gift to her.
"Although it took several years, my mom's death made me realize how incredibly dangerous smoking is," she said. "My mom may have had some underlying heart condition that contributed to her death, but I am certain smoking was a major factor. I am so grateful that I have the opportunity my mom did not … to change my lifestyle and live a long and happy life.