Conway woman defeats fear of exercise after heart attack

By Tammy Keith Published February 16, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Nick Hillemann

Trainer Amanda Castillo, left, worked with Sherrie Hartzell, 54, at Conway Regional Health and Fitness Center to overcome her fear of exercise after Hartzell had a heart attack and bypass surgery in 2009 at age 49. February is American Heart Month. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, according to the American Heart Association.

Sherrie Hartzell of Conway didn’t hesitate to tell someone when she “felt funny” at work that day, and she said it saved her life.

“I was at work at UCA, and on that Friday at 4 o’clock … I just started feeling like, … just a funny feeling. My chest wasn’t hurting; I didn’t have any pain or anything like that. I just knew something was wrong. You know your body,” she said. “I told my co-workers, ‘I’m not feeling right.’”

It was 2009, and Hartzell, now 54, was 49 at the time. She had started exercising and had even won a Biggest Loser challenge at work for dropping 20 pounds.

Her co-worker summoned a University of Central Arkansas police officer who was in the room that day, and he called an ambulance, Hartzell said.

“I started sweating; I remember that. I was sweating so bad. I never sweat like that. I was dripping sweat,” she said. “I told myself, ‘Stay awake; stay awake.’

“I remember them pulling me out and putting me in the ambulance. The guy on duty that day, fortunately, had just been trained on 12-lead ECG,” she said, which connects electrodes to a patient’s chest and records the heart’s electrical activity.

“He immediately hooked me up and sent it [the results] to the emergency room, so they had that before I even got there,” she said.

“I heard the other guy ask him, ‘What do you think is wrong with her?’ He said, ‘She’s having a heart attack.’

“I said, ‘Oh, my Lord, I’m having a heart attack. Don’t close your eyes — you know how you talk to yourself,’” she said.

Hartzell said Dr. Don Steely had just gotten finished in the cardiac-catheterization lab, and a team was there.

“They rushed me into that to see where the blockage was,” she said.

“My husband and kids and grandkids came in the room, and I thought, ‘Oh, I must be bad,’” Hartzell said, laughing.

Doctors harvested a vein from her leg and performed a double-bypass heart surgery.

Hartzell said she had a “widow-maker” heart attack, or in this case, widower, so-named because most people don’t survive it.

“My leg hurt; it bothered me more than my chest,” she said. “They cracked me open — that hurt for quite a while, my collar bone and shoulders.”

Hartzell said her husband reported that she told the doctor, “I was getting ready to look good for my 50s, and you cut me up,” but she doesn’t remember saying it.

“[The doctor replied], ‘Well, it was kind of an emergency,’” she said, laughing again.

She does have some history of heart disease in her family.

She said her father had two strokes in his early 60s and died of a heart attack at age 69.

Just a couple of weeks before her heart attack, Hartzell said, her doctor told her to keep an eye on her cholesterol.

Following two days in the hospital after her operation, she went home.

“I started trying to walk around. I’d set the timer on the microwave for five minutes, and I’d walk around my kitchen and living room,” she said. “It was tough, too.”

Hartzell said she went to cardiac rehabilitation and then returned to work. She and her husband started back with their routine of going to Conway Regional Health and Fitness Center.

The fear of having another heart attack was always there, she said.

“I was just scared,” she said. When her heart would start beating faster as she exercised, she’d ask an employee to check her blood pressure.

Hartzell said she’d stop often when she walked around the track with her husband.

“One time, we even went to the emergency room because I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t feel very good.’ It was nothing. I was just paranoid, I guess,” she said.

In 2010, she said, she got involved in the Women Run Arkansas event and ran and walked in intervals in the 5K.

When she was running, she would talk to herself, she said.

“I just had to overcome it. I had to overcome this fear,” she said.

Hartzell said she thought about her family and her two grandchildren at the time. Today, she has four.

“Every year, I would do that 5K; then I wouldn’t run or do anything any more, just go to the gym,” she said. “I was still afraid to do anything but walk.

“I’d see Dr. Steely and Dr. [David] Naylor at the gym, and Dr. Steely would say, ‘We fixed you; You’re OK.’ I’d say, ‘Tell my brain that!’”

For Christmas in 2011, Hartzell’s husband gave her a gift certificate for a trainer at Conway Regional Health and Fitness Center.

She started working with trainer Amanda Castillo.

“She has been wonderful. She knew my limitations and everything,” Hartzell said.

“She’s slowly got me where I’m doing overhead presses, weights and push-ups and all this stuff, and it’s just crazy what I can do now,” Hartzell said.

“I remember the first time I went and worked out with her. I had to pull over to the side of the road because I was crying so hard. I was like, ‘I can do this.’

“She got me into running even more, and I did the Soaring Wings half marathon this past October. I did under three hours; that was my goal.”

Hartzell said she ran another half marathon in January, the Freezin’ for a Reason 10K this month, and she plans to run the Little Rock half marathon and one in Russellville.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever do a marathon, but I may,” she said.

Hartzell has more time to train since she retired in 2013 as manager for parking and traffic services at UCA.

Castillo said the first time she met Hartzell was in a group-exercise class that Castillo teaches.

“That was right before her heart attack,” Castillo said.

Castillo said her husband cuts Hartzell’s hair. “He said, ‘You almost killed my client,’” Castillo said with a laugh.

Hartzell said that was just a few days before her heart attack, but they joke about it now.

After the class, “I got sick to my stomach,” Hartzell said. “I thought, ‘Well, I haven’t done this kind of stuff.’ That was a real warning sign,” Hartzell said.

Castillo said the change in Hartzell has been dramatic.

“You could tell she was very guarded with anything we did. She was very unsure of herself. She was especially guarded in her chest, doing push-ups or flys,” Castillo said.

She said Hartzell had been cleared by her doctor to exercise, which is “first and foremost” before starting a program.

Castillo said she encouraged — basically pushed — Hartzell to run.

“She talked about Women Can Run the first year we trained. I said, ‘You’re doing this 5K,’” Castillo said.

She said she watched Hartzell’s confidence grow.

“She’s a totally different person from the Sherrie I met,” Castillo said. “She was shy and timid. Now, she’s a take-charge-I can-do-this kind of person.”

Hartzell said she has lost more weight and is down two sizes in most clothing, even three sizes in some styles.

“It pushed my husband to lose weight, too,” Hartzell said.

Her bad cholesterol is down; her good cholesterol is up.

Hartzell’s close call with death changed her life, and she has advice for other women.

“No. 1, you know your body, and the signs are not the same for women as they are for men for heart attacks or even heart disease,” she said.

“If you feel like something is wrong … you need to tell somebody and go to the ER. If I had put that off, I wouldn’t have made it.”

A lot of women wait, she said, thinking they will feel better eventually.

“After you have something like that, don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone, as Amanda puts it,” Hartzell said.

“You just don’t realize just how strong you really are, and it gives you a confidence you never knew you had. It’s great,” she said.

“I get up every morning and thank God.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or

Know the Symptoms

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, according to the American Heart Association.

Heart disease kills one in three women — that’s approximately one woman every minute, according to the association’s Go Red for Women website.

The signs of a heart attack for women differ from those for men. It’s not always the elephant-sitting-on-the-chest feeling that men have.

Symptoms of heart attack in women include the following:

• Chest discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes, or pain that goes away and comes back — often a feeling of uncomfortable pressure, squeezing or a feeling of fullness;

• Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness; and

• Pain or discomfort in the neck, back, jaw or stomach.

Gray Wagnon, advanced-practice nurse at the Conway Heart Clinic, said abdominal discomfort is sometimes mistaken for indigestion.

If these symptoms occur, Wagnon said, women should call 911 immediately.

For more information, go to or

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or

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