Guardians of Her Heart

By Erica Jenkins 

My grandmother was one of the strongest women I know, with a big heart to match. She never had more than a high school diploma, but she worked hard and became an accessories buyer for a Knoxville department store, traveling to New York to pick out hats, handbags and gloves for local shoppers.

She never missed work, even if she was sick, and her response to the question: “How are you doing Norma Jean?” was always, “Just fine, thank you.”

Widowed at 42, she raised two daughters by herself and put them both through college.

She could be a tough talker, but she always had a kind word and an extra $20 to discreetly slip to someone who was struggling.

My grandmother was a strong woman, but her heart began to fail as she aged. In her 60s, a routine gynecological appointment led to diagnosis of an irregular heartbeat. A decade later, she developed heart failure.

After a hospital scare that left my grandmother struggling to breathe as her heart failed to fully contract, my mom and aunt became the guardians of my grandmother’s heart. They teamed up to manage her medications and keep track of her health on a daily basis. They attended doctor’s appointments, so when my grandmother assured the doctor she was just fine, they could remind her of all the times she was short of breath.

My grandmother’s final retirement was from WalMart at age 83, at which time she took an extended vacation that lasted five years to my aunt’s house in Florida. Every day, my aunt would send my mom a report of my grandmother’s weight and blood sugar. She cooked my grandmother heart-healthy meals that were low in sodium and high in fruits and vegetables. And every once in a while, my aunt would sneak her dessert, as long as my grandmother promised not to tell my mom.

Thanks to my mom and my aunt watching out for my grandmother’s heart, I had 23 years of memories with her. Memories of her ignoring my mom’s glare while she let me guzzle an entire Coke, memories of her hugging me at my high school graduation and telling me how proud she was, and finally, memories of me holding her hand as my grandmother’s heart became too tired to beat.

February is American Heart Month, and heart disease is the number one killer of women.

My grandmother was able to live for nearly 30 years with heart disease because the women who loved her most protected her heart.

I hope that this month, you will learn about the signs of heart disease and encourage the women you love to live a healthy lifestyle and schedule regular doctor’s visits. That’s the commitment I’ve made to the women in my life.

Erica Jenkins HeadshotErica Jenkins  Contact
UT System Administration

Erica joined the UT System Office of Communications and Marketing in 2011 and currently serves as public relations associate, specializing in measurement and analytics and managing communication planning for government relations and advocacy initiatives. When she’s not involved in community and campus organizations, Erica enjoys deep sea fishing with her family and working on mu

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