WEST ORANGE, NJ — Montclair resident and business owner Ahava Felicidad helped spread awareness and encourage healthy life choices by sharing her story with her luncheon neighbors.

In support of the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Go Red for Women campaign, a lifesaving movement that raises funding for cutting-edge research focused on cardiovascular health and celebrates women’s ability to inspire others to fight heart disease and stroke, hundreds of women attended April’s ninth annual Northern New Jersey Go Red luncheon at the Wilshire Grand Hotel in West Orange.

A “Go Red Experience Room” offered guests an opportunity to network and enjoy healthy activities live CPR demos, a fender blender smoothie bike, a red lipstick touch-up station, a “purse-a-nality” auction and more before lunch. Later on in the ballroom, guest speakers like Della Crews of News12 New Jersey; Northern NJ Go Red chair Rosa Coppolecchia; Jacqueline Walden, vice president, Community Health and Stroke Integration, AHA; and keynote speaker Jo Ann Saitta, a survivor of both heart disease and stroke, encouraged men and women alike to take charge of their health.

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Each table had a heart survivor ambassador, like Montclair resident and business owner Felicidad. As a heart survivor ambassador for the AHA, Felicidad has the unique opportunity to speak at events, create awareness, share her story, inspire and support others, and “be of any assistance that [she] can be to anyone who has the same thing that [she] had.”

Saitta, Chief Digital Officer of Omnicom Health Group, shared her personal story of how she underwent open-heart surgery at the age of 16, and was back in the hospital a few short years later after suffering a stroke.

“I’m a mom of two awesome kids, I’m the wife to a great man, I’m an employee, I’m a volunteer, a friend, a daughter, a neighbor—in other words, I’m your average woman, but throughout my life, I’ve had to break some barriers just like you,” said Saitta, who was emotional after being introduced by her daughter, Caitlin. “[At nine years old], as the pediatric cardiologist showed me which of my heart valves weren’t working properly on a model heart, I learned one of the biggest lessons of my life: that my hear was my responsibility. And that’s a lesson that I’ve never forgotten.”

Caitlin is one of two children Saitta nearly didn’t have. At 26 years old, Saitta faced more barriers after being healthy for several years and underwent her second open-heart surgery. She was later told she would likely not survive a pregnancy. Determined to be a mother, Saitta and her husband used a gestational carrier and ended up with healthy twins.

“I was determined not to let this barrier stop be from being a mom,” she said. “[Now] I’m a mom with a career that I love, I put my health first and I make sure that I’m ready to break barriers and make changes when they come my way. My hope is that by sharing my story, more women will know that they, too, have the power to break their own personal barriers and make the changes to live a heart-healthy life. We all have a reason to ‘Go Red,’ and together I know we can break down the barriers that stand in our way.”

“I’m a survivor that triumphed,” said Felicidad, who also calls herself a thriver. “[I’m] there for inspiration and to say, ‘Hey, this is what I did and I’m still here.’”

Felicidad, owner of Montclair’s Ahava Felicidad Hair & Body, is known in her community as “The Holistic Hair Healer.” But before she became successful in her business, Felicidad was told by a cardiologist that she only had two or three years to live. That was 17 years ago.

While attending graduate school at age 25, Felicidad became pregnant and soon after was diagnosed with preeclampsia, which caused her to gain excessive weight and greatly affected her blood pressure. She was hospitalized and prematurely gave birth. A month later, she was hospitalized once again and told that her heart was enlarged, and that she had cardiomyopathy.

Felicidad said the most devastating part of her diagnosis was that she was told to stop breastfeeding, a unique part of her story that she often shares with other mothers facing similar concerns. It was shortly after this that she was told she needed a heart transplant and was given three years to live.

“I’m 25 years old with a one-month-old baby—all I’m hearing in my head is God saying, ‘Don’t listen to this man, you have a baby to take care of,’” said Felicidad, who was determined to do whatever it took to live, such as cutting salt out of her diet, adopting holistic wellness routines into her lifestyle, and immersing herself in learning more about her condition—and her cardiomyopathy was healed within a year.

“By year three, I was working out four days a week and still doing everything natural,” she said. “My actual business that I’m in now is born partly from the journey of the heart disease. I’ve been doing hair since 1986, but the holistic and natural [approach] came because I had to read food and product labels to free my body from of as many chemicals as possible.”

After her daughter became concerned about her own heart health, and after losing her mother to congestive heart failure in 2015, Felicidad was inspired to finally speak up about her experience.

“I didn’t want to talk about it for years because I thought that if I talked about it once I was in recovery, it would come back,” she said. “A lot of mothers won’t talk about it, I feel, because you don’t want your children to hear that this was as a result of pregnancy and feel the blame for you being sick. But I hadn’t processed [my daughter’s] concerns about it being genetic.”

As a survivor ambassador, Felicidad’s goal is to support other survivors, to connect with more women and to be there as an inspiration. She said that the more women who attend these events, the more awareness they will be able to spread about “the diversity of what heart disease can look like.”

“It attacks in the African American community at a very high rate, so I also had to be there as a woman of color to say, ‘Yes, this happened to me but I survived,’” said Felicidad. “I’m also the only one that I know of in this region that had cardiomyopathy. I’m not the one that had the heart attack, I’m not the one that was born with valves that needed to be replaced—I’m the one that was a healthy young adult that was taking great care of myself and then, boom, I had this heart thing and was told that my life would be taken away from it.”

With the motto “Your health is your wealth” in mind, Felicidad said her goal was to encourage the men and women at the luncheon to focus on their individual health and to inspire compassion among them.

“They had the keynote speakers, but being there for me was important because I have a specific story to tell that’s going to create more awareness, inspire someone and then show them they can do it too,” she said. “Because I don’t believe in terminal.”

Every 80 seconds, a woman dies from cardiovascular disease, and about 80 percent of these diseases could be prevented, according to AHA. It is the No. 1 killer of women, claiming the lives of one in three women and claiming more lives than all forms of cancer combined.

Since the Go Red for Women movement began in 2004, Coppolecchia said more than 670,000 women’s lives have been saved thanks to individuals like Felicidad and others at the Northern New Jersey event. The AHA’s breakthrough in research and the work AHA has done is “dramatically increasing a person’s chance of survival,” she added.

“Our challenge is great, but we can do it,” said Coppolecchia. “Today was to celebrate the power of women and the innovation that has led to more lives being saved. While we’ve made great strides, we still have a long way to go to get to zero, and the answer is sitting right in this room.”

Coppolecchia said it is the power of the next generation and the next medical breakthrough that will empower young people to dedicate their minds to advancing in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“The answer is innovation, and this year, Go Red for Women is going STEM,” Coppolecchia said as she introduced high school students who have chosen the STEM track. “The impact they will make in the future is exciting.”

Those in attendance were challenged to commit to one of the five Go Red Commitments: get active, eat healthy, monitor blood pressure, join My Research Legacy to help in the fight to end heart disease and stroke and donate to Go Red For Women.

Coppolecchia also acknowledged the event’s signature sponsor, Bayer Consumer Health, for being part of the movement. National sponsors included Macy’s and CVS Health.

Local sponsors included RWJBarnabas Health, Hackensack Meridian Health, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, Atlantic Health Sytem, Omnicom Health Group, Care One, Kessler Institute of Rehabilitation, Beacon Health Options, Ocean Healthcare, KPMG LLC and Van Dyk Manor. Media sponsors of this event were TAPinto.net, New Jersey Monthly and News 12 New Jersey.