We met Yewande Austin at Rebelle Con and knew right away that she was a force. She’s an activist and an artist, spending much of her time in Nigeria building a sustainable community called Alheri Village. She even survived a heart attack. We asked Yewande to share her story as part of our #WarriorCrushWednesday series.
Six years ago my life changed forever. I didn’t win the lottery, get married, or have a baby. I had a heart attack. Heart disease is one of those intriguing predators. It dwells silently inside of its prey and rarely forewarns the victim of their demise until the very moment it decides to attack. For most of us that means we don’t receive a diagnosis until our bodies are in autopsy and loved ones are notified. Research indicates that over 64% of heart attack survivors never show any symptoms of heart disease until an actual attack occurs. How scary is that? I wish I could say the same, but I ignored most of the signs. Shamefully, I was too busy/vain/strong/uninformed to take action. I was as much of a contributor to my brush with death as the disease itself. I guess that’s why they say that 80% of attacks are preventable.
Because my condition was caused by a congenital heart defect, every cardiologist agreed that it was never a matter of “if”, but rather “when” my condition would come to a head. But pursuing a master’s degree in Europe and producing youth empowerment programs across Africa while trying to keep my business afloat in a down economy and ignoring my health certainly didn’t help. I was doing WAY too much.
There’s a reason that heart disease is the #1 killer of women. We juggle an enormous load of responsibilities and most of us manage this role extremely well. But society rarely shows any empathy for the physical or emotional issues that we sustain, so we often push through the pain and are left to deal with the consequences that inevitably impact our health. I’m one of the 44 million women that are affected by heart disease (23.8% of us are African-American) and live with the daily reality that my condition could very well end my life. But don’t cry for me Argentina!
Living with heart disease has taught me to live every single day with purpose.
Having a heart attack was one of the strangest blessings in my life. Not just because I was lucky to survive (only 24% of patients will survive a cardiac arrest), but because of the lessons that I never would’ve learned if I hadn’t had to fight for my life. I’m always happy to teach people about heart disease prevention, but I’m most grateful that I was given this second chance to demonstrate the power of living with purpose – the most important lesson that I learned the day that I almost died.
My 10-minute ride in the ambulance that day was the scariest and ironically, one of the funniest days of my life (go figure). I guess that the EMT had never seen a “thirty something” healthy-looking woman in a black couture dress complaining about her heart before, because he was clearly nervous about taking off my clothes.
He chuckled for a moment, but when he finally applied the cardiac leads to my chest, our bumbling comedy sketch quickly came to an end. The EKG machine registered at 230 BPM (the average heart rate is 80-120 BPM) and was steadily climbing when I realized the severity. He muted the sound on the EKG machine to calm me down, but it was too late. I’d already accepted that I was probably facing the last moments of my life.
And in those moments, I began recalling all of the incredible experiences I’d had in my thirty-something years on earth. Oh, so you thought this story was about how I learned to live with purpose after my heart attack? Quite the contrary. I’d always been passionate about following my dream to change the world. That dream led me to sing with musical icons like the Black Eyes Peas and Maroon 5, produce youth empowerment programs in 6 countries, become a social entrepreneur and an award-winning international lecturer. What I wouldn’t learn until later, was that the lessons that I’d taught others about living with purpose would actually save me!
Gratefully my life was spared that day, but it was only the beginning of a very long and difficult journey ahead. Nobody ever tells you about the struggle of recovering from a heart attack. I was immediately thrust into a world that was unfamiliar to me – one blood pressure medication after the other that controlled my arrhythmia until I had heart surgery, which led to a pulmonary embolism that collapsed my lung, 4 hospital stays and over 40 doctor visits. Those 2 years were an absolute mess! Surviving a heart attack was a blessing, but recovering from it left me financially ruined and consumed by such an intense fear of dying that I forgot how to live…until the day that I just got tired of feeling bad for myself. That’s not who I was!
Heart disease was only one part of me, it didn’t define the best parts of me! I was the woman that had produced global empowerment programs for AIDS orphans, human trafficking victims and refugees! They had trusted me to help them navigate through some of the toughest moments in their lives, so I didn’t have the right to give up! I was ready to fight to get my life back.
But where do you start when you lose everything? In the midst of rebuilding my life, I questioned pretty much everything in my life, namely, whether I should trade in my dream to change the world for a safe 9 to 5 job. The benefits of the latter were easy to identify and probably would’ve been a smart move considering that I was barely surviving day to day, but I decided to do something revolutionary!
I wrote a list of everything that made me HAPPY (what a novel idea) and at the top of that list was:
1) empowering vulnerable people,
2) fighting social injustice and
3) expressing myself creatively.
Those gifts had not only defined my life’s purpose, but were tantamount to who I was since the days that I’d protected my childhood friends from bullies on the playground. Being of service was always important to me, so why should I change my direction? I did some house cleaning (spiritually, personally and financially), revamped my businesses, downsized, and with every new accomplishment, I didn’t feel like the old me again. I felt better!
Giving to others, gave me my life back. Just two years after surviving a heart attack, I became the first Diversity Lecturer-in-Residence at Virginia Commonwealth University (2014-2016), was nominated for a 2017 CNN Hero Award for the third time, became a 2017 President Barak Obama “Lifetime Achievement Award” honoree, produced programs in 12 more countries and am currently building a sustainable community for Boko Haram conflict survivors in Nigeria. Having a heart attack forced me to say goodbye to the things that no longer served me so that I could make room for new blessings. Having purpose brought joy back into my life, kept me focused on specific goals, restored my confidence in my new heart and gratitude for my new life – not the life that I expected, but the one that I chose to embrace (defects and all).
Here are some of the other lessons that I learned along the way:
- Eliminate the excuses.
- Know your limits.
- Do what makes you happy.
- Be willing to change.
- Forgive yourself.
- Embrace the truth.
- Know your worth.
- Face your fears.
- Live without regret.
- Find your purpose.
Learn more about Yewande Austin, her capacity building programs, and how to live your best life by requesting her lecture, “The 10 Most Important Lessons I Learned About Living from Almost Dying” at www.globalinstituteforchange.com. Learn about Yewande’s socio-economic empowerment programs at www.changerocksfoundation.com. Read more warrior stories here.