Dionne Whitfield, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska group leader and broker services representative, was only 38 when she underwent triple bypass surgery. Now, she celebrates Women’s Heart Health Month by sharing her story to raise awareness.

“I want to share my experience with other women so they aren’t blindsided like I was by a life-changing diagnosis,” said Dionne.

Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women, causing 1 in 3 deaths each year—a statistic Dionne had never heard of until it was almost too late.

Dionne first noticed something was wrong when she felt pressure in her chest while working out. She then mentioned it to her exercise instructor, who encouraged her to see a doctor as soon as she could.

That’s when she was referred to a cardiologist who found three blocked arteries. Dionne was scheduled to have triple bypass surgery within the same week. During this scary time, she learned that African-American women have a higher risk of heart disease. In fact, African-American women ages 20 and older have a 49 percent risk.

“Once I knew the statistics, I could see how my risk was higher because of what I grew up eating,” said Dionne. “I want to spread awareness to other women, especially black women, to know their risk when it comes to cardiovascular disease and not be afraid of healthy changes.”

After recovering from surgery, Dionne was determined to change her lifestyle for good. She continued her exercise, with more consistency and effort, and started cooking healthy meals for her whole family. She recalled that change is hard, but it’s all worth it when you start to feel better both mentally and physically.

During Women’s Heart Health Month, Dionne wants to remind women who are mothers to not forget about their own health while they look after their families. “Many women are busy taking care their kids and end up neglecting their own health,” said Dionne. “You have to be there for yourself, too.”

Reflecting on her life-changing diagnosis in 2012, Dionne wants to encourage other women to be informed about their risk by getting regular check-ups, knowing their family history and making healthy lifestyle choices.

For more information on Women’s Heart Health Month, visit goredforwomen.com.