Leslie Jordan always knew a lot about heart disease. Not only was her family full of doctors and nurses, but some members had died from it. She learned early on that there were certain things she needed to keep an eye on in order to stay healthy.
“Watch out for diabetes. Look out for your blood pressure, hypertension. Those were things I learned at a young age,” she tells ESSENCE. “I never thought I would have to use the knowledge.”
She had been relatively healthy most of her life. Jordan wasn’t taking any maintenance medications, and she wasn’t dealing with any issues. So when she became pregnant with her first child, she believed that things would be fine. But to her shock, she would end up finding out that she was suffering with preeclampsia.
“I was absolutely devastated,” she recalls. “I had done everything I could to have the healthiest pregnancy. Even some of the dietary restrictions, I followed. I added to my diet. I was exercising. I was doing everything. So when I got the diagnosis it was like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
She tried to remain optimistic as her pregnancy came to a close, leaning on her obstetrician who assured her that things would be fine. “It was one of those things where I was told, ‘It does happen, and we don’t know why it happens, but we’re going to do everything to make sure the worst doesn’t happen.’”
Thankfully, when Jordan gave birth in 2018, her delivery was successful. She welcomed a healthy baby boy. While he thrived, she found her own health declining. Immediately after giving birth, she noticed that she didn’t feel well.
“I didn’t know what to expect. I just had a baby, maybe this is how you feel,” she recalls thinking. “I was like, let me just rest, relax and be in the moment. The baby is healthy, passing all his tests. That’s what’s important.”
But a headache came on that wouldn’t cease. As hours passed and she tried to recover from giving birth, it got worse. She was given different medications to help, and doctors on staff at the time were running tests on Jordan to figure out what could be going on. At one point, she could no longer lift up her head.
“I literally had to hold my neck. I just didn’t have the strength to hold my head up at all.”
Finally, a nurse who came in and heard about all the strong medication Jordan had taken unsuccessfully decided to track down a neurologist. By the time he came in, Jordan felt like her body was revolting against her, as though it were on fire. She began to panic.
“I started talking and I could hear myself. I’m like, I don’t sound like this,” she says. “My speech started slurring. It was really hard to formulate the words. The next thing I knew, the fire got so bad.” Jordan, understandably fearful, shouted the first thought she had as loud as she could: “I’m having a stroke!” Shortly thereafter, she blacked out.
She would find out that she had a series of major strokes, blacking out multiple times. She had some brain damage, in addition to an initial inability to move her body. She struggled to talk and to walk. It was traumatic. But according to doctors, the fact that she survived was a miracle.
Still, it was the beginning of a long, ongoing journey for Jordan to recover physically and mentally. Many moments she doesn’t remember from that time after her stroke, including her son’s earliest days.
“I don’t remember the first three years of my son’s life,” she admits, sharing her gratitude for pictures that help her recall things. She jokes that she and and her son were raised together. As he learned how to do the basics, she was relearning them. Almost five years later, she’s still working her way back, doing physical rehab. She can’t drive yet but hopes she can get back to it in another year or so. She also hasn’t been able to return to work.
“I’m still trying to get to a place where I feel like myself,” she says. “I know I’m not going to get back to where I was. I’m ok and have made peace with that, but I at least want to get back to feeling whole.”
But there are so many things that Jordan is grateful for. Her balance is getting better, and her way of thinking is also improving. The seizures that followed her stroke are no longer violent, and she feels more comfortable being left at home alone. She’s most grateful to have the support of her loved ones as she turns this corner in her progress, and to have a new perspective on life.
“I’ve gotten a lot of beautiful blessings out of this. I’ve grown as a person. I have been able to realize what’s important in life and not spend so much time on things that I just thought were important,” she says.
Taking care of her health is one of those important things. She’s changed her diet some, enjoys exercise simply as movement, has learned discipline, and is more motivated than ever to live her healthiest, happiest life.
“I’ve given myself permission to take care of myself.” She wants others to do the same.
While she ended up having a stroke, Jordan found out that she suffered from cardiovascular disease. When you have cardiovascular disease, you’re at a higher risk of experiencing a stroke. “Cardiovascular disease affects one in three women. So the great thing I’m really proud to say is I work with the American Heart Association for the Go Red Women movement. Their initiative is to end cardiovascular disease for all women. I want everyone to be proactive so they don’t end up a survivor like me.”
She recommends that we go to our annual checkups and have our bloodwork done. In addition to that, she says it’s important to get our hearts checked, know our blood pressure, cholesterol, BMI and sugar levels, and try to adopt a healthier lifestyle.
When American Heart Month ends, she will continue to tell her story and encourage women to take charge of their health so they don’t go through what she did. Not everyone survives.
“I got a second chance. I didn’t have to live,” Jordan says. “I just encourage everyone to know that if you’ve been in a situation where you could no longer be here but you are here, focus on living. I have purpose. There’s a reason I’m still here, and I feel my testimony is part of my purpose.”
For more information on the Go Red Women movement and initiatives being taken to save lives during American Heart Month this February, go to goredforwomen.org, and heart.org.