Queen Latifah sits in a chair next to her mother, Rita Owens, and gazes at her mom with a smile, her almond-shaped eyes sparkling during a break of filming a PSA on “rising above” heart failure. It is a condition Owens was diagnosed with 11 years ago, after passing out while teaching art at a New Jersey high school.
“We’ve learned a new us,” Latifah tells PEOPLE of her changed relationship with Owens following the diagnosis. “We’ve gotten a lot closer and we’ve learned each other on a whole different, deeper level.”
Their profound connection comes in part from Latifah’s close caregiving of the 66-year-old Owens. When not in California, Latifah lives in her bedroom in Owens’ New Jersey home, sharing caregiving duties with relatives and a nurse.
“I will do whatever I can to make sure my mom is comfortable,” says Latifah, 45, “and has whatever she needs.”
Soon after Owens fainted in her classroom, doctors discovered she had sleep apnea and heart failure, a chronic, progressive condition in which the heart is unable to pump blood efficiently enough to meet the body’s needs.
Proper medication, a defibrillator implanted in her chest to avert a heart attack and a diet low in salt and fats but heavy on vegetables enables Owens to live with condition, she says.
Owens also needs oxygen 24/7 due to a lung condition. “Had I taken care of that heart, I probably would not have had the problems with the lung which led me to the oxygen,” Owens says.
When first diagnosed with heart failure, Owens says she entered a “valley.” No longer could this once highly active woman teach or go out dancing. Even “the simplest chores” such as sweeping or mopping became impossible, she says.
“I found myself becoming a recluse,” Owens says. “You have to understand your body is not processing the same way it was before. I started counting the things I can’t do instead of the things I can do. And I said, ‘Nope, this is not acceptable.’ ”
With the help of Latifah’s uplifting spirit, affirmations and attending church, “I started coming back,” Owens says. “I thank the Lord every day that I have that I can live with this, and that He put people in my life that told me so.”
Latifah and Owens decided to do the PSA for the American Heart Association’s Rise Above HF campaign to share this message of hope. “If you were to get a diagnosis of heart failure, it doesn’t mean it’s the end,” Latifah says. “I can tell you that is how my mom felt when she heard those words.”
“Heart failure is a serious crisis and preventable for many people, but for those who are living with it, there is a way to make changes to make life better,” she continues. “And having seen that in my mom, and seeing the joy of her improving, it’s very exciting.”
Medications, no smoking, exercise, a heart-healthy diet low on fat and salt and high in fruits, vegetables and fiber and, if needed, surgical procedures can help the estimated 6 million Americans with heart failure lead better lives, according to the AHA.
“We’re not going to talk about dying from heart failure, we’re going to talk about living with heart failure because that’s what Rita’s doing,” says Los Angeles cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Kathy Magliato, an AHA spokesperson on hand for the PSA, which was filmed in a Glen Ridge, New Jersey, home several weeks ago.
The AHA launched the PSA on Tuesday, World Heart Day, as well as the website RiseAboveHF.org to raise awareness of the condition, including how to treat and prevent it.
“My mom is stronger than anyone I’ve ever known,” Latifah says in the PSA. “Growing up when life got hard, her strength helped pull us through. Even after her heart failure diagnosis she remains stronger than ever.”