Molly Schroeder survived a heart attack when she was only 21 years old. Now she’s on a mission to help young women understand heart health isn’t something that can wait until they’re older.

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Molly Schroeder was 21 years old and in the prime of her life when she had a heart attack. Image via Go Red for Women

On September 14, 2012, Molly Schroeder decided to go for a run before her college soccer practice.

“Fridays were normally less intense days at practice, so I wanted to get in a workout first,” Schroeder told Healthline.

A passionate soccer player since she was 4 years old, being active was her norm.

“Soccer was my life. I was in shape and never had any complications until after that run,” she said.

When Schroeder got back to her apartment, she suddenly started feeling ill.

“I took in a big breath of air and I had an annoying pain in my chest that I could feel when I exhaled, and it worsened. I could feel the blood in my face draining, too. I thought I was having an anxiety attack,” she recalled.

Just six weeks prior to that day, at 58 years old, her mom passed away from a pulmonary embolism, triggered by complications after knee surgery. Schroeder initially felt her symptoms were caused by anxiety from losing her mom.

However, as she became sweaty, cold, nauseous, and as her arms became numb, she knew something else was going on, and asked her roommate to drive her to the emergency room.

“They did an EKG and the nurse said, ‘This is crazy. It shows you’re having a heart attack, but the chances of that are 1 in 100,000,'” Schroeder recalled.

After 16 hours of testing, doctors confirmed that a blood clot had created a 90 percent blockage in one of her main coronary arteries.

Because she had a hole in her heart (atrial septal defect), which was diagnosed when she was a child, that along with the clotting were most likely the reason for her heart attack.

“When I was 12, my mom found out she had cardiomyopathy. When that happened, my brother and I went through testing to see if we would have any issues and they discovered a hole in my heart. They told me to go back in a few years to check it and at that time they determined it had closed,” said Schroeder.

“I went on thinking my heart had healed itself until I had my heart attack.”

Following her heart attack, Schroeder was prescribed medication to treat the clot. She also went through cardiac rehab. Further testing revealed that she had a genetic blood clotting disorder.

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Because Schroeder could no longer play soccer, she had to find new ways to stay active.

“My whole life had changed, and at 21 I learned how fragile life is,” she said. “I already learned that after losing my mom so young, but it really hit me that I was not Wonder Woman. I had a couple dents in my shield.”

Since recovering, she has become an active runner and hiker and participates in snowshoeing.

“As long as I keep my heart rate below 170, to make sure there isn’t any further damage from my heart attack, [I try to do cardio]. I wear a Fitbit and check my heart rate constantly,” she said.

She’s also aware of her sodium intake and has become a vegetarian to cut out red meat.

Most importantly, she stays on top of her health, and wants others to do the same. That’s why she’s proud to be part of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women’s new class of Real Women.

As one of eight Real Women nationwide, Schroeder shares her story to educate, empower, and inspire other women.

“I had been waiting for my opportunity to be a part of the American Heart Association. It’s a great way for me to connect with other women with heart disease and stroke, and for us to stand together to talk about [them], especially since it’s the number 1 killer of women, [even though] a lot of people don’t talk about it,” Schroeder said.

“I’m so empowered by this because I am one of the statistics now and I never thought I’d be.”

She urges women to understand their family history of heart disease and to take it seriously.

She knew her mom had heart issues, and that her maternal grandfather passed away from a heart attack in his late 40s, but she didn’t realize how closely this history could impact her health.

She also hopes young women with no family history of heart disease take preventive measures.

“Heart attacks can happen to anyone. It’s called the silent killer for a reason and people don’t realize they have it until it’s too late. I was 21 years old and getting into the prime of my life,” Schroeder said.

“[Everyone] should take preventive measures and know your body mass index and what blood sugar and cholesterol means.”

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Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, cardiologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital and medical expert for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement, says women need to have their heart health monitored.

While nearly 80 percent of cardiac events can be prevented, cardiovascular diseases continue to be a woman’s greatest health threat, claiming the lives of 1 in 3 women or about one woman every 80 seconds.

“I find Molly’s story heartbreaking,” Steinbaum told Healthline. “How do we take someone like Molly who has a strong family history and enable her and empower her and give her the tools to understand that she needs to be checked aggressively so it can be prevented?”

To answer her own question, Steinbaum says understanding the below five numbers is the key to heart health:

  • LDL cholesterol
  • HDL cholesterol
  • blood sugar
  • body mass index (BMI)
  • blood pressure

As the national sponsor of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement, CVS Health is offering free screenings for each of these every Thursday throughout February at their Minute Clinics.

Annual visits with your internist or primary care doctor is another way to monitor these numbers, says Steinbaum.

However, if you were diagnosed with gestational diabetes, hypertension, or preeclampsia while pregnant, she suggests seeking out a specialist.

“Your risk of heart disease after pregnancy and in your life goes up. Every woman needs to understand not just those numbers, but also look at your family history and what has happened to you during pregnancy. Knowing your whole story can drive you to go to someone other than your internist,” she said.

She suggests finding a cardiologist who’s interested in women and heart disease and prevention.

“It’s time women get checked and do what we need to do to prevent this disease,” Steinbaum said. “Nothing else in our lives disease-wise is as preventable as heart disease and that to me is the most empowering piece of this.”

Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories around health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.