SARATOGA SPRINGS – According to the American Heart Association, heart disease and stroke cause 1 in 3 deaths among women each year, more than all cancers combined. Tammy D’ercole, a stroke survivor, knows all too well the reality women face when it comes to their cardiovascular health. February 1 marks ten years since her open heart surgery and stroke, and now, D’ercole is dedicated to sharing her story and being the voice of advocacy for women everywhere.
On January 30 2006, Tammy D’ercole was having a night out with friends, when she noticed blood after using the restroom. After going to the hospital and getting a CAT scan, doctors discovered a very large tumor on her heart, known as an atrial myxoma. Though it was benign, she needed open heart surgery immediately. During the surgery, D’ercole suffered a massive stroke, causing an acquired brain injury (ABI). For the next few months, she not only had to recover from heart surgery, but also had to relearn how to walk and talk.
“The hand of God is through my whole story,” said D’ercole. “I was intubated and on life support, very close to death. For me, the process of recovery is what gave me this appreciation for life. It made me understand the fragility of life. I was very selfish and self-centered, all about consumption rather than contribution. Now, it’s about what I can do to give back, what I can do for other people, and what I can contribute to society as a whole.”
However, this was not D’ercole’s first experience with stroke and heart problems. When D’ercole’s daughter, Catie, was a newborn, she was diagnosed with Tetralogy of Fallot, a four part congenital heart defect, and underwent open heart surgery when she was just six weeks old. She later suffered a stroke at age two. Despite sensory and attention issues, Catie, just like her mom, is a true survivor.
“I have a spiritual approach to life that I didn’t have before the stroke. The heart opens up and spirituality pours in,” said D’ercole. “My physical heart has changed obviously, but my emotional and spiritual heart has changed way more.”
The last several years for D’ercole have been all about outreach and bringing awareness to women’s heart health. She has begun writing about her journey and even participates in talk radio shows throughout the country. She uses social media to connect with and mentor other survivors, and also to spread information about heart disease and stroke.
“That’s what my passion is now, getting involved in advocacy and bridging the gap between the family and the patient,” explains D’ercole. “I had to learn to advocate for myself. The patient can’t always explain to you how they feel. But I’ve been the patient, and I’ve also been the caregiver. I’ve played both roles. Last year on Facebook I wrote, ‘I hope to be an advocate someday,’ and someone replied, ‘You already are.’”
D’ercole is currently working toward going back to school and getting her degree in social work to get even more involved in peer mentoring. She is also working with The Giving Circle, a non-profit that helps those in need both locally and globally. Mark and Kelly Bertrand, the founders of The Giving Circle, have invited D’ercole to Uganda with them this June to help with their outreach programs there.
D’ercole, who has a permanently cupped or “clawed” hand from her stroke, explained what this trip would mean to her. “A lot of kids over there have sickle cell, which is the cause of a lot of strokes. I can’t even imagine walking onto African soil someday and seeing a child with a hand like mine. I can’t even imagine. It’s going to be amazing. This claw is the outward sign that my stroke was really bad. It’s not going to work ever again. But what I’ve learned is to embrace this as merit that I’m telling the truth and I know what I’m talking about when I advocate for you. This is my badge. This is what makes it real.”
February is American Heart Month and Friday, February 5 is National Wear Red Day, part of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign. D’ercole plans on dying her hair bright red and “dancing in her red cowboy boots” for the occasion.
“Go Red for Women raises awareness for women to learn about their hearts. It’s teaching women to teach other women about heart health. It’s a ripple effect,” said D’ercole. “My big thing is to get the statistics out there. I think it follows right behind the Pink Ribbon campaign. Early detection is so important in breast cancer, and it is in heart disease too. There are a lot of things women can do; they just don’t know what to do. Women don’t go out and see a cardiologist every year for a heart check-up. But prevention is so much better than treatment after the fact. If we can prevent heart attack and stroke, we don’t have thousands of women being disabled for the rest of their lives.”
For more information about the American Heart Association and the Go Red for Women campaign, visit heart.org and goredforwomen.org.