By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS
Raquel Cordova’s life changed course after witnessing her mother’s stroke as a young girl. Now, the longtime TV and radio personality and blogger is raising awareness about being heart-healthy and preventing stroke to women throughout Southern California.
Cordova, who goes by the name RaqC, grew up in Riverside, California, in a hard-working family of five. Her mother, Cecilia Alvarado, would cook each night and insist on everyone dining together, despite juggling a full-time job, trying to start her own business, doing volunteer work at the family’s church and keeping up with the active schedules of three kids.
That tradition may have saved Alvarado’s life. One evening, when Cordova was 12, she noticed her mom seemed unusually tired and stressed out as she sat across from her.
“All of a sudden her face went crooked, and the next thing we knew, she collapsed,” Cordova said.
Although the family didn’t realize it at the time, Alvarado’s drooping face was a classic sign of a stroke, along with the weakness on her left side, which caused her to collapse.
The family immediately rushed Alvarado to a nearby medical clinic where she was diagnosed with a mild ischemic stroke, or one caused by a blockage of blood flow in an artery supplying blood to the brain. She was given medication to reduce its effects.
Alvarado took time off work to recover at home and rebuild her strength, though it took several weeks before the numbness went away.
Stroke is the No. 5 cause of death in the United States and a leading cause of disability. Recognizing the signs of stroke quickly and seeking immediate treatment plays an important role in improving a patient’s outcomes.
After her stroke, everything changed for the family.
“It was a wake-up call for all of us,” Cordova said. “It brought a level of awareness beyond just what we were eating, but also every factor — like stress and taking on too much.”
Alvarado, who was 36 at the time, had been taking medication for high blood pressure since she was 23. But she hadn’t taken seriously that her high blood pressure was a leading risk for stroke and something that was preventable. She also had a family history of heart disease, another risk factor for stroke.
“You think something won’t happen to you, but when it did, everything came into focus,” Alvarado said. “I wasn’t paying attention to my health. It wasn’t enough for me to just take my medication. I had to change my life.”
About 80 percent of ischemic strokes are preventable through lifestyle factors and managing other risk factors, such as high blood pressure.
The family’s poor diet, another risk factor for heart disease and stroke, was the first target. Although Alvarado always cooked for her family, menus centered on ready-made foods.
Dinners featured salads of iceberg lettuce with creamy ranch dressing and entrees such as frozen fish sticks or Hamburger Helper. On Sundays, the family often treated the kids to a meal at McDonalds.
“All of that stopped,” Alvarado said.
Cordova recalls not always being enthusiastic about some of the menu changes, such as the dark green vegetables that replaced iceberg lettuce. Crispy drumsticks were now served without the skin.
“My mom would tell us the food would make us strong like Popeye to try to coax us into it,” she said. “It wasn’t easy, but after awhile we just loved it and didn’t miss those things anymore.”
Alvarado also reduced her stress by taking on fewer obligations, delegating more, and letting go.
“I had to learn that not everything had to be done my way,” she said. “It was OK if the kids didn’t fold the towels or do the grocery shopping the way I did. It still got done.”
The lifestyle changes paid off for Alvarado, now 57, who feels better than she ever did before and spends her days counseling others about the benefits of healthy eating.
“I see my stroke as a blessing,” she said. “Had I not had that wake-up call and changed my life, I may have had a deadly stroke later.”
For Cordova, her mom’s experience gave her a different perspective on how to approach life, both through diet and finding balance with her work and other responsibilities.
“My mom really engrained in us the importance of respecting your body and your health,” she said.
Cordova, who now lives in Los Angeles, regularly shares her mom’s story through her various social media platforms, hoping to raise awareness among other young Latinas about the importance of not only paying attention to heart health, but also talking about it. She runs a nonprofit called Amigas 4 My Soul that holds fitness parties and conferences to empower women. Cordova and Alvarado recently shared their story at a Go Red Por Tu Corazón event in Los Angeles targeting Spanish-speaking women.
“Until my mom had her stroke, we never talked about what being healthy meant,” Cordova said. “I want people to avoid stress, bad eating and being afraid to ask for help when you need it.”
Photos courtesy of Cecilia Alvarado