Sisters and heart failure survivors Shaun Rivers (left) and Kimberly Ketter.

Sisters and heart failure survivors Shaun Rivers (left) and Kimberly Ketter.

As twins, Kimberly Ketter and Shaun Rivers have been through just about everything together: first day of school, learning to drive, graduation.

But there was one moment that altered the lives of the sisters from Richmond, Virginia.

Kim first suspected something was wrong in May 2009 when a routine climb up the stairs caused her to become short of breath and fatigued. Then, she did the opposite of the advice she typically gives her patients: The veteran nurse dismissed her symptoms.

The next day at work, Kim suddenly became ill. Her heart was racing and she was short of breath and dizzy. She saw her family doctor and then a cardiologist. A battery of tests found that Kim had heart failure.

“I said, ‘Excuse me?’ I didn’t have high blood pressure. I didn’t have diabetes. I was an athlete in high school. It just wasn’t possible,” Kim said. “When I was told my ejection fraction, the tears came. I had too much left to do with my life.”

The ejection fraction, or EF, measures how well the heart pumps blood out of the heart, and EF percentage is used to diagnose and help track a person’s degree of heart failure. A normal heart’s ejection fraction ranges from 55 to 70. Kim’s EF was 20.

Concerned the problem might be genetic, Kim urged Shaun, also a nurse, to get tested. A week later, Shaun was diagnosed with heart failure. Her EF was 30. Both sisters were 40 years old at the time.

“I was in disbelief,” Shaun said. “I went through the stages of grieving. The only comfort was knowing I was going through this with my sister. I knew we could get through it if we got through it together.”

Research shows African-Americans are disproportionately affected by heart failure, with incidence being roughly double that of whites. African-Americans are also more likely than whites to develop heart failure before age 50.

Kim and Shaun, now 47, are vigilant in taking care of themselves – and each other. They both take several medications daily, which they’ve dubbed their keep-Kim-and-Shaun-alive pills. They also closely monitor their diets and visit their doctor regularly.

Although they’ve had to change their routines, the sisters don’t allow heart failure to run their lives.

“It has become so clear why this happened to us,” Kim said. “We are on the battlefield doing what we need to do. We are here to encourage and educate others.”

The sisters have joined a newly established team of American Heart Association Heart Failure Patient Ambassadors. The group offers support by sharing their personal experiences and information with the millions of Americans impacted by heart disease and stroke.

Kim and Shaun also shared their story at The Saint Paul’s Baptist Church, having launched the AHA’s EmPowered To Serve initiative there three years ago. The program aims to improve health in multicultural communities by partnering with faith-based organizations.

Along with providing medical care, the sisters have worked with church leadership to include healthier choices on the church café’s menu, such as baked or grilled chicken, fish and fresh vegetables.

“We have people come and thank us because they had no idea they had a health problem,” Kim said. “We’re ensuring spiritual health but also the physical health of our congregation. It’s a huge responsibility, but we’re living our life with purpose.”