Lexington native talks to Oprah about heart health

Dina Piersawl, who grew up in Lexington, became a spokeswoman for heart health after a mini-stroke.
Dina Piersawl, who grew up in Lexington, became a spokeswoman for heart health after a mini-stroke. Photos by Mary Meehan

Dina Piersawl promised herself she'd find a way to share the story of her heart disease on The Oprah Winfrey Show. But before she could plot her strategy, the show called her.

"It was just surreal," she said. "The whole experience was just surreal."

It was Nov. 1 when the call came. The producers of Oprah got Piersawl on the line and said, "We'll be at your house tomorrow."

Piersawl grew up in Lexington and attended Tates Creek High School. After graduating from the University of Louisville, she moved to Chicago — where Oprah's television show is based — to work as a chemist. Since 2009, she has been a spokeswoman for WomenHeart, a national coalition to promote heart health.

So Piersawl's Chicago location and her willingness to share her story made her the ideal candidate for the show.

"I knew she could handle it," said Lisa Clough, director of communications for WomenHeart. "She is so passionate and so articulate."

Still, Piersawl said, when Clough first talked with her about the possibility of being on Oprah, she thought it might be some kind of crazy joke.

"I said, 'Don't mess with me. You know I have a heart condition," she joked.

The invitation has an interesting back story. Being a spokesperson for WomenHeart is a volunteer job, but it required a week of training at Mayo Clinic. When Piersawl graduated from training in 2009 she told her fellow graduates she would spread the message of heart health and prevention on the The Oprah Winfrey Show although she didn't really know how, exactly, she would make that happen.

"It was just a shot in the dark," she said. "Everyone tries to get in touch with Oprah."

Her story, however, is pretty compelling. Her personal crisis began in Lexington while visiting family during the Christmas holidays in 2003. She didn't feel right and had a terrible headache. Her mother said there was something off in her eyes.

Piersawl went to the emergency room after returning to Chicago on Dec. 30. She was given nitroglycerine, her blood pressure was monitored for a few hours and she was sent home. ER personnel said the headache was caused by "holiday stress."

Her symptoms persisted and worsened. A track runner in college, she'd always been healthy. "I had never had any health issues at all."

"I had not an inkling that I was having any trouble with my blood pressure," she said. "I just had this resounding headache, and it just kept getting worse."

Soon she was having chest pains. "It felt like there was a football player sitting on my chest."

She was back in the emergency room Jan. 2. The diagnosis this time was that she had suffered a mini-stroke. She was hospitalized for a week, followed by two weeks of in-home physical therapy and eight weeks of outpatient therapy.

She had lost much of the movement in the left side of her body.

"I was knocked out for the next six months," she said.

Piersawl connected with WomenHeart via the Internet during her early recovery. In part, she said, it was because she was going stir crazy as she learned to use her left arm and leg again.

She stayed involved with the online community until 2009, when she applied to become a "champion" or spokeswoman for the group. Since then she's talked to women's groups, church clubs, just about anyone who asks. But nothing could match the reach of Oprah's show.

Piersawl said it's hard to put into words what it felt like just sitting a few feet from Oprah as her segment was introduced. The show is about five things people need to know for 2011. Piersawl's take on heart health is the first segment.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, who appears frequently with Oprah, participated in the segment. At one point he used a 6-foot-tall plastic model of an artery and sponges soaked in red dye to re-create how a blood clot led to Piersawl's mini-stroke.

Although the afternoon of filming was edited into just a few minutes for the show, Piersawl said she was glad to share her message: that women need to be aware of their blood pressure and overall heart health to avoid serious complications.

"Know your numbers," she said, referring to blood pressure rate.

As a member of Oprah's audience she received more than $1,000 in designer clothes and an array of other goodies. As a guest on the show she received a hand-written note from Oprah, a coffee mug and a journal.

"Overall," she said, "a pretty good day."

Only one thing was missing: Piersawl's mother, Ella, died last summer of congestive heart failure. She was a huge Oprah fan.

But, Piersawl said, the fact that she was able to hold her composure and deliver her message confirmed to her she wasn't alone.

"I know that she was definitely with me in spirit," she said.