When Susan Lucci discovered last October that she had a ninety percent blockage in her heart's main artery, she was shocked
When Susan Lucci, 72, discovered that she had a ninety percent blockage in the main artery leading her heart, known as “the widow maker,” and seventy percent in a branch artery, she was shocked: “If it can happen to me, it can happen to a anyone.”
A CAT scan first revealed the blockage after Lucci felt intense chest pain last October 23 while shopping for birthday gifts at the Tory Burch boutique in Manhasset, Long Island. “It felt like an elephant pressing down on my chest,” she tells PEOPLE.
Even after she was rushed to the ER and informed by her doctor she’d need two stents in her arteries to return blood flow to her heart, she didn’t understand the full danger. “I didn’t realize how serious it was until I asked to go home and come back the next day for the procedure and my doctor said ‘You’re not leaving. You can have a heart attack at any time.'”
That’s when the seemingly invincible Lucci, beloved for her 41 year career as Erica Kane on All My Children, realized her risk. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women today, killing approximately 400,000 women a year, according to the latest statistics from the American Heart Association.
But Lucci, long devoted to a daily Pilates workout and a heart healthy Mediterranean diet, was unaware that her father’s heart disease meant she was also at risk. Her father, Victor Lucci, had suffered a heart attack in his late forties. “I always thought I had my mother’s genes,” says Lucci of her mother, Jeanette, now 101 years old.
But as with all women, Lucci was not immune from her family history. “My father had calcium build up in his arteries,” says Lucci. “It’s my DNA.”
“Her risk is was due to her father’s arteriosclerosis — a condition that leads to plaque build up which can cause blockage and hardening of the arteries,” explains her cardiologist Dr. Holly Andersen, Associate Professor of Medicine and the Ronald O. Perelman Institute at New York Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medical Center.
According to Dr. Jennifer Mieres of the American Heart Association, one of the most important risk factors to understand is your family history. “The key when you have family history is to start living a heart healthy lifestyle in your twenties to help nullify the genetic predisposition,” says Dr. Mieres. “Knowledge is power.”
And now as a volunteer spokesperson for American Heart Association’s Go Red For Women campaign, Lucci is using her knowledge and experience to help others. “I want to do some good with what I’ve been through,” says Lucci. “If I can help in any real way, I want to. Everyone’s symptoms are different but I felt compelled to share mine. Even if it’s one person I help, that’s someone’s life.”
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Her story is all the more powerful because Lucci, who competed on Dancing With The Stars in 2008, has long been the picture of health. Just last year, her age defying figure made headlines when paparazzi photos of her in a red strapless bathing suit on the beach in Barbados went viral. Lucci says with a laugh: “It’s an unusual thing but I wanted to thank the paparazzi for such nice photos.”
While it seems all the more surprising that eight months later, Lucci landed in the ER, Dr. Richard Shlofmitz, Head of Cardiology at St. Francis Hospital, who inserted the stents into her heart, says that is not always the case. “What a person looks like on the outside doesn’t tell you what is going on in the inside,” he says. “The most important piece of information is a person’s history and the history of your symptoms. Listen to your body.”
And that’s exactly what Lucci wants to get across. “As women, we put ourselves on the back burner sometimes,” she notes. But if your body is telling you something, you need to pay attention. Put yourself on your to-do list.”