This February, Lisa Davis, chief information officer at Blue Shield of California, joined fellow leaders and colleagues in raising awareness around the topic of women’s heart health — a subject extremely close to her heart. In fact, 11 years ago, Davis went through her own personal journey, facing a serious, undiagnosed congenital heart defect, and then undergoing open-heart surgery. Today, Davis encourages other women to know their family health history and follow their intuition.
Tell us a little about your personal heart health journey.
Eleven years ago, I thought I was in great health, exercising regularly and making healthy eating choices. Then during a routine staff meeting, I suddenly felt ill; my heart began racing and skipping every tenth beat. I’d always been attuned to my body, so I instinctively called my primary care provider, who referred me to a cardiologist for diagnostic testing. Within the week, I learned that I had a serious congenital heart defect, called bicuspid valve, which was enlarging my aorta. The good news was that the damage could be repaired through open-heart surgery. The better news was that we had caught it in the first place. Without a diagnosis, this is the type of condition that causes a person to suffer an often-fatal aortic aneurysm while out for a run or hike. I was extremely lucky.
How did this unexpected health crisis impact your life and health?
It was a wake-up call. At the time, my children were just 10, 11 and 24, and for the first time, I feared not being there for them, or not getting to see them grow up. After my surgery, I made immediate lifestyle changes. I began ruthlessly prioritizing how I spent my time and who I spent it with. I focused on my family and my personal well-being. I lost 15 pounds — and kept it off — and I started to address stress by incorporating yoga and meditation into my workouts and bringing more balance to my work. I also took time to reevaluate my career; my heart journey eventually led me to work in health care. After experiencing firsthand how complicated the healthcare system was to navigate, I was drawn to Blue Shield’s passionate vision to transform health care.
What have you learned through your heart health experience that you wish you’d known before?
I understand now that heredity isn’t just a checkbox on your health history form. I discovered that my grandfather died of an aortic aneurysm, and both my grandmother and mother also had heart issues. Once we connected those dots, all three of my children were tested for congenital heart issues, and now heart health is something my entire family talks about. My experience also taught me to think about the long game. The health and lifestyle choices I make now will ultimately impact my quality of life later. It is as much about health-span and the number of years we live in good health, without disease, as it is about lifespan. I feel better now than I did 10 years ago.
You have two daughters — what would you like them to take from your experience?
Ultimately, I want them to enjoy big, vibrant, healthy lives — which means prioritizing their physical and mental well-being. As women, we sometimes ignore health symptoms because we don’t think we have the time, or we don’t recognize the seriousness of what we’re experiencing.
Cardiovascular disease and stroke are the number one killer of women in the U.S. — more than all cancers combined. I want to instill in my daughters that it isn’t selfish to prioritize your health. You can’t help others if you don’t take care of yourself first. And most of all — I want them to trust their instincts. When something doesn’t feel right, I want them to act immediately and without hesitation.
What additional insights or resources do you want to share with others?
I encourage women to talk to their doctors about risk factors and to understand their family history. Familiarize yourself with how heart disease and stroke symptoms present in women. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to be perfect — you simply must move in the direction of health.
I also believe employers play an important role in helping to create environments that support well-being. Many companies offer wellness and fitness benefits that can help you stay healthy. For example, Blue Shield offers virtual benefits that address risk factors like smoking cessation, weight management and stress management. I encourage you to talk to your employer and seek out resources. It’s much easier to be proactive in our health than to be forced to take a reactive stance later.
For more on Heart Health Month, read these tips from Blue Shield’s Dr. Lara-Larios on preventing and managing heart disease.
During Heart Month, three Blue Shield of California Promise Community Resource Centers in Los Angeles are providing CPR and blood pressure monitoring classes, in addition to their regular monthly programming.