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Three days after Christmas, Yolanda Thompson was at work when she got the call she hoped she would never receive. Her husband, Aaron, had suffered a massive heart attack.

"He was a large man and had already had one heart attack," she said. "We knew that if he had another, it would probably be the last one."

She'd been trying to encourage him to eat better and exercise, just as she had set out to do for herself, and was thrilled that he'd started enthusiastically working with a trainer. But the changes came too late.

The heart attack hit while he was driving, just minutes from their home in Wichita, Kansas.

"Seeing him in the middle of the street with all the paramedics working on him … that was the worst day of my life," she said.

Sadly, Aaron's death was not Yolanda's first experience losing a loved one to heart disease.

Almost a decade earlier, in 2008, a fun-filled road trip to Nashville with family ended abruptly with a call from her husband to say that her 34-year-old sister, Alisha, was in the hospital in critical condition.

"He said to leave the car and fly back to Wichita because my sister wasn't going to make it," she said. Although Yolanda was terrified of flying, she boarded the plane and prepared to face something even more terrifying.

At the hospital, she found her sister unconscious, with tubes everywhere. The doctors gathered the family to update them and to ask a critical question. Why had Alisha stopped taking her blood pressure medicine?

"That question still haunts us," Yolanda said. "We didn't know." Nine days later, Alisha's heart stopped, her death caused by heart disease and hypertension. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women, and hypertension rates are especially high among African-Americans.

These days, Yolanda is taking the lessons she's learned from that one-two punch of heart-related deaths as motivation to improve her own lifestyle. But it hasn't come easy. Her struggle underscores the reality that many Americans face: the need and desire to maintain a healthy weight without the ability to always do so.

As she grieved Alisha's death, Yolanda was just going through the motions, still going to work and taking care of her husband and daughters, but not feeling like taking care of herself.

"When you lose a sibling or someone close like that suddenly, you either don't eat or you don't stop eating -- mine was the eating reaction," she said.

Her weight skyrocketed. She was diagnosed with hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol.


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