GOING RED

Mary Leah Coco’s first-hand education about heart disease came swiftly, in 2010, when she went to a doctor for a feeling of exhaustion she couldn’t shake.

She was working full time, was a doctoral student and the mother of a little girl and thought she was simply worn out.

Instead, she learned that she had a life-threatening heart condition.

Her mother also has heart disease, and Coco had lost her maternal grandfather to heart disease.

“I’m the third generation in my family” to have heart disease, Coco, who’s 32, said. “It stops here.”

Coco is one of 10 national spokeswomen for the American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women campaign.

Coco was in Manhattan for a number of Go Red events covered by the national media in late January and early February.

She helped light up in red the Macy’s in Herald Square and was at the ringing of the bell at NASDAQ on Feb. 1, the National Wear Red Day.

Locally, Coco will be in the fashion show that’s part of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women Luncheon on Friday

The Go Red for Women campaign urges women to be aware of signs and symptoms of heart disease, to understand their bodies and to “ask more questions” of health-care professionals, Coco said.

“Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women,” she said.

Coco said that people tell her, “‘You don’t look like you have heart disease.’”

“That’s the point,” she said.

It’s not obvious.

Coco’s mother, Leah Moore, learned that she had an atrial septal defect in her heart, a hole in her heart — later repaired in a medical procedure — in 2008.

Coco was almost eight months pregnant with her daughter, Annie, then and asked her doctor if she herself should have a heart checkup — with her family history of heart disease becoming more apparent.

She was reassured by the answer she got: “No, you’re OK.”

Coco went on to have a healthy little girl, after an easy labor and delivery.

“Looking back, that’s God’s hand in making me have an easy labor. A hard labor and delivery could have been catastrophic,” Coco said.

Fast forward a couple of years, with Coco’s work load, school load and busy family life with her daughter and husband Jeremy, a professional chef and the dean of education at the Louisiana Culinary Institute.

Coco said she didn’t have her usual energy.

“I was exhausted. I could feel my heart race” at times, said Coco, who is the assistant director of the Transportation Training and Education Center.

It’s the research arm for the state highway department and is part of the Louisiana Transportation Research Center, she said.

With hindsight, thinking of the struggles she had before her diagnosis of heart disease, Coco said, “You look back, (and see) many signs and symptoms.”

Finally, in the fall of 2010, Coco decided to make an appointment with her mother’s cardiologist.

“I didn’t feel like having to recap the story. I wanted someone to take me seriously,” said Coco, who had always been physically active and had played intramural sports in college.

At her doctor’s appointment, on Nov. 11, 2010, Coco had a normal electrocardiogram reading and a healthy blood pressure.

“If I hadn’t been at my mom’s doctor, they would have sent me home,” Coco said.

But the doctor recommended that she also have an echo cardiogram, a sonogram of her heart.

Coco said that she and the technician giving her the exam were talking together about their daughters. The exam seemed to be taking a long time, she said.

And then, said Coco, “I notice when she (the technician) gets up, her eyes are full of tears.”

A few minutes later, in the doctor’s office, Coco learned that she had dilated cardiomyopathy, the same condition her grandfather suffered from, and that she had only 10 percent of her heart function.

In dilated cardiomyopathy, the heart becomes weakened and enlarged and can’t pump enough blood to the rest of the body, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Coco remembers that her doctor “talked about medicines. The ones they have now, they didn’t have in 1977, when my grandfather had this.”

Her heart condition is so severe that she’s considered to be in clinical heart failure, she said.

“It really is life-shattering news,” she said.

“I cried for hours and hours,” Coco said.

“When you have a predisposition (for heart disease) in your family, there are trigger events,” she said of the possible causes of her heart condition.

If her pregnancy was the cause, Coco said she’s glad she didn’t know of that possibility before she had her little girl, now 4. Coco’s been advised not to have any more children.

With family history in mind, Coco is proactive and takes Annie for a cardiac checkup every year.

“I want to be sure she leads as healthy a life as possible starting now. I’m working to create a legacy for her and others because I am alive and not a statistic,” Coco said on the American Heart Association’s website, http://www.goredforwomenepk.com/mary.html.

More than two years since her diagnosis, Coco has become an active volunteer for the American Heart Association.

Coco and her family and friends walk in the Capital Area Heart Walk every spring.

Coco takes several different medicines now and, in June 2011, had surgery to get an implantable cardioverter defibrillator that helps control irregular heartbeats, or arrhythmias, and uses shocks for ones severe enough to cause sudden cardiac arrest.

“These are my jumper cables,” Coco said.

There is a heart monitor by her bed, which pulls information from her heart every night and sends it to her doctor, she said.

Coco, who is under the care of doctors here as well as at the Cleveland Clinic, an academic medical center in Cleveland, Ohio, where she goes for checkups twice a year, and has periodic testing to see if she can qualify to go on the heart transplant list.

“Fortunately, I hover in the ‘too well’ category,” Coco said.

Coco continues to work hard and enjoy her family.

But her life has changed.

“Everything in life gets harder,” she said.

That can range from the looks she gets when she — who appears perfectly healthy — parks in a parking space for the disabled to her and her husband’s working hard to stay debt-free, so they can manage future health-related costs, she said.

Then there are the day-to-day effects of heart disease. Coco had to drop the intense physical workouts she used to do faithfully.

“Think about sleeping 12 hours a day” and still not feeling rested, said Coco’s mother, Leah Moore, the business manager of LSU’s Residential Life department, who manages her own heart condition with medication.

Coco has a blog at http://reducation.posterous.com.

She said it’s “where I blog about a lot of things, but mostly what it’s like to be a young mother with severe heart disease.”