Star Jones is a successful attorney, author, TV personality and American Heart Association National Volunteer. A decade ago, she was also obese, stressed out, and wondering what to do about it.
“I was the one who went from sexy and full figured to sloppy and fat,” she said Thursday at the American Heart Association’s national headquarters in Dallas. “And I made the decision to get control of my weight and that saved my life. In the words of one of my favorite movies, ‘Shawshank Redemption,’ I had to get busy living or get busy dying. I chose to live.”
For Jones, getting busy living meant undergoing gastric bypass surgery in 2003 to help her shed 150 pounds. It meant no more junk food and a dedication to healthier living through regular exercise and better eating habits.
Yet by 2008, something didn’t feel right to Jones, a former senior district attorney who later was chief legal analyst on the Inside Edition TV program during the O.J. Simpson trial.
“I was really tired – not in the ‘my life is so fabulously busy’ sort of way, but the ‘my body doesn’t feel good, I feel just exhausted and I’m trying not to acknowledge it’ sort of way,” she said. “I was short of breath and experiencing frequent and intense heart palpitations, like someone was punching me in the chest constantly. I would get lightheaded if I went from sitting to standing too quickly. And it wasn’t like George Clooney or Denzel Washington had just walked by.”
Extensive testing in 2010 revealed something Jones never suspected: heart disease. Her cardiologist, former AHA president Dr. Valentin Fuster, said she needed open heart surgery to repair a damaged aortic valve. The hope was that the procedure would allow Jones to stave off the need for a valve replacement or heart replacement surgery later in life.
“I was like, ‘Are you out of your mind?'” she said. “I really couldn’t understand why this was happening to me. I always thought that heart disease was an ‘old white dude’s disease’ — those are the faces you saw on those ads. Heart disease didn’t happen to newly hot black girls who thought they had it going on.”
According to the AHA, heart disease is the nation’s No. 1 killer. More women die of heart disease than all forms of cancer combined, affecting some 42 million women in the U.S. annually. Black women are 50 percent more likely to develop hypertension—a major risk factor for heart disease–than white women. Meanwhile, half of black women are considered obese, another risk factor for heart disease.
To perform the procedure, doctors had to remove her heart and stopped her heart for 22 minutes and put it on ice. The surgery was a success. And Jones, one of the original hosts of ABC’s “The View” weekday talk show, was determined to become a heart health advocate.
Seven months after her surgery and countless hours of intensive cardiac rehabilitation, Jones competed on NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice” reality show on behalf of the American Heart Association and its Go Red for Women campaign. She raised a record-setting $175,000 on the show and another $175,000 by the time it aired.
Heart health has been her passionate plea ever since.
“I was lucky. I came through heart disease–I’m a survivor,” Jones said. “Of all the jobs I have, of all the roles I play and titles I possess, I am most proud of my role as AHA National Volunteer. Heart health has become my mission in life and my hope for tomorrow and it fills me with tremendous pride and humility to represent the organization that is leading the way in the fight to reduce heart disease for Americans.”
Watch more about Star’s heart health journey: