Go Red for Women: One Survivor’s Story

Did you know that heart disease takes the life of one in 3 women every year? That’s one every minute. It’s still the number one killer.

At 72 years old, Marly Zager of Viroqua still has a lot of pep in her step. She likes to stay active walking her dog, Gaston. But the path Marly has been down these past few years has been anything but a walk in the park.

“My brother Johnny was the first one to fall on March 20th of 2010. I got a call from my older brother saying my baby brother had just died and I started just shaking saying, oh no, no, no. He said now calm down, they brought him back to life,” said Marly.

Her 60 year old brother collapsed from sudden cardiac arrest. He was one of the lucky ones, part of the 3% that survive. Marly said, “There had happened to be a fire chief from the town of Sheboygan standing right next to him so he knew exactly what to do and he got it in that window of 2 to 6 minutes.”


Just 7 months later, it happened again. This time though, it was Marly’s son and the outcome was much different. “My son died Oct. 30th of that same year. He collapsed on the street in New York, he was a well known photographer there.”

42 year old Ranjit Grewal died alone on his way to a Halloween party. He left behind a wife and two young children. “There was no one, unfortunately, close enough to bring him back to life fast enough, because it wasn’t a heart attack.  It was sudden cardiac death.,” said Marly.

Suddenly, the picture was becoming clear for Marly. Her brother’s near tragedy and her son’s death weren’t just a coincidence. Marly says, “my sons poo pooed me and I said alright then, I’ll be the first one to get tested.”

Almost all of Marly’s immediate family, including herself, her two other sons and three brothers have since been diagnosed with what’s called Coronary Artery Disease. It’s a narrowing of the arteries causing your heart to receive less blood. “Once you look into it, you find out how many people in this country have had entire families die of it, somehow never connected the dots that maybe it was more than just an anomaly,” said Marly.

In Marly’s case, they found 90% blockages in two of her arteries earlier this year. “During the heart cath, it was determined that she had some clogged arteries in the vessels of her heart so she had two stents placed and since then, she’s been doing fabulous,” said Marly’s Exercise Physiologist at Vernon Memorial Healthcare Eric Thundstedt.

“A lot of women are surprised that they are here having a heart issue because they didn’t even think they had it, but you know, when they’re here, they’re the most motivated,” said Thundstedt.

And Marly’s family history has been her motivation. 3 times a week, she works out, taking steps towards a healthier future and leaving her past behind her. “You really work a sweat. They start you out softly of course in the beginning to see what your body can tolerate and make sure it’s OK and then they ramp it up, and ramp it up,” said Marly.

Looking back now, Marly says some of the warning signs were there. “Stay in tune with your body because I could sort of feel things were wrong.”

Thundstedt says, “I think women have to realize, if they get any kind of unusual symptoms when they’re not doing activity where it just comes up all of the sudden and you’re like what’s that, they should have it checked out.”

In fact, the symptoms of heart disease aren’t necessarily the same for men and women. Here are the most common things women should look out for:

-Pain or pressure over the chest that travels to the arm or jaw
-A burning sensation in the chest or upper abdomen
-Shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, dizziness, sweating, fatigue and nausea.

Marly admits she probably would’ve never known about her heart issues if it weren’t for her family history. Marly says, “I feel very fortunate that we got a headstart in knowing and then being able to do things about it.”

Now, she hopes others learn from her experience and take control of their own health before it’s too late. “For more people to understand it and be proactive about it, ask questions, insist if you don’t feel well and just ask for some tests and things. There’s a favorite saying I have too,’for every seed of adversity, there’s an equal or greater seed of good’ and I think, that’s what I hope is going to come from this, not only will it prolong my life, I like to believe I’m going to touch a lot of other lives.”

Marly is the honorary survivor at this year’s Go Red For Women luncheon in La Crosse.  The event takes place Wednesday, July 24th.  To learn more, visit lacrossegored.org.