The morning of Jan. 10 started as a typical Minnesota winter morning for Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley.
“I was digging out my driveway,” Conley recalled.
Earlier this month, from her office inside the Hennepin County Government Center, Conley recounted how her life changed on that day.
It started with an unfamiliar pain between Conley’s shoulder blades.
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“It started to radiate up my neck and around my jaw,” Conley said as she grabbed her jaw in a moment of memory.
Conley had never been taught these were actually common symptoms of a heart attack for women. Most of Conley’s frame of reference for people suffering heart attacks brought forth the image of a white man in his 60s, clutching his chest.
“I’m 45, right?” Conley said. “Sure, I’m not the healthiest person.”
After several hours of pain Conley had to go to the emergency room, and it was not until she asked a nurse that she understood what was happening.
“I whispered to her, ‘Did I have a heart attack?’” Conley said the nurse replied, “Ma’am, you are having a heart attack.”
There was no open-heart surgery, but Conley had two stents put in to keep open critical arteries. Conley had survived, but a lonely feeling began to set in while she waited in the recovery room.
“That’s when it really hits you,” Conley said.
Conley’s father had heart disease and died from a heart attack at the age 74, just a few months before Conley suffered her own heart attack. She began to feel the weight of the significant lifestyle changes she would need to make around diet, exercise and stress.
“I have a high-stress job, a single parent,” Conley said. “I was a ticking time bomb.”
A combination of guilt, shame and fear was hard to overcome.
“You may not survive the next time, you’re at a greater risk for having another heart attack,” Conley said, “Like all of these things are swirling around in your mind.”
As she coped with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, Conley began to think it would be nice to help other women, particularly younger Black women, learn more about heart disease and receive access to more comprehensive mental health care during recovery from a heart attack.
It’s why Conley, who is also the first Black person elected to serve on the county board, is asking for the county to put $1 million toward heart health education and mental health care geared toward survivors of heart attacks.
According to the CDC, nearly half of all Americans have at least one of the three key risk factors of heart disease — smoking, high cholesterol or high blood pressure.
In Hennepin County, 1 in 3 Black and Native American residents have high blood pressure compared to 1 in 4 white residents, according to the county public health department.
Health equity researcher Dr. Rachel Hardeman is the founding director of the Center for Antiracism Research for Health Equity. Hardeman said while many people who can afford to make significant lifestyle changes struggle to adjust, there are systemic barriers to health for Black women across the country.
“Structural racism in society has created the conditions that expose Black women to poor health outcomes on a daily basis,” Hardeman said.
Hardeman said lawmakers should focus on policies at the local, state and federal level addressing disparities in areas like education, housing and safety to dismantle racism and produce better health outcomes.
“I would love to be the poster child for why we have to do better, and what we need to do to do better,” Conley said.
While still focused on helping others, these days Conley is also investing more in herself.
“I have a lot more living to do,” Conley said. “I have grandkids yet to see.”
Conley has a follow up appointment for her heart in December, which is also when the county will finalize its budget for next year.