A quintuple bypass surgery removed the blockages in Cynthia Cardinal’s heart after she had a heart attack on her 46th birthday.

Cardinal, now 47, resolved to improve her diet and physical activity for her 12-year-old daughter.

“I just think heart health is why I’m able to share my story. Literally, it’s good to be alive,” Cardinal said. “I want to lead by example so she can share her story, too, as she gets older.”

At the Adventist Health Sonora annual Heart Walk Tuesday afternoon, Cardinal walked among a crowd of about 200 people.

Cardinal said her daughter was in school and unable to attend. Despite her daughter’s absence, Cardinal said she was proud to walk alone among other cardiac survivors and Adventist Health employees.

“It’s simple just to walk. It doesn’t have to be strenuous. We live in a community where, despite the weather, you can be outside,” she said.

Health scares were sudden for many of the walkers, despite warnings in their family history.

In 2012, a stent was placed in one of Copperopolis resident Kathy Newland’s blood vessels. That same year, her father died of congestive heart failure at 96, and her husband died at 64 of heart disease.

Newland, 73, said her mother also died at the age at 85 from a heart attack.

“As a nurse, I had seen enough in spite of my own family history,” she said.

Newland had heart surgery in July to treat aortic valve stenosis, a narrowing of the blood vessel connected to the aorta which limits blood circulation. She now has a pig valve in her heart.

Cardinal said her grandmother died at 52, her father at 63, and her male cousin at 31 from heart attacks. Last fall, her female cousin died of a heart attack, too.

Carindal woke up early on her 46th birthday in October 2017 with pain in her chest, but she didn’t imagine it was a minor heart attack. She thought she was too young to have a heart condition, she said.

“I just couldn’t get comfortable. I just thought, something's not right,” she said. “I thought I was having heartburn, but I knew enough about listening to my body to check it out.”

Two days after lab work at Adventist Health Sonora, Cardinal was sent into surgery. She enrolled in the cardiac rehabilitation center at Adventist Health Sonora, a decision she said likely saved her life.

“There was emotional support. When you have other people to relate to one another, then it helps,” she said. “Because I listened to my body when I went in, there was no heart damage.”

Adventist Health Sonora President Michelle Fuentes told the crowd — many of them in gray “Just Beat It” T-shirts to commemorate the walk — that she would join them in the one-mile loop, despite wearing heels to work.

“Everybody has a heart, and it’s all about being healthy with those hearts,” she said.

Fuentes said the Health Walk was the product of relationships formed between patients, their families and staff in the hospital’s cardiac rehabilitation center.

The cardiac rehabilitation program offers patients guidance in exercise, diet, stress management and weight control following surgical heart procedures.

“When people are trying to become healthier, it’s easier to do it with people in small groups,” Fuentes said. “People want to support the services that make them better.”

Julie Mena, a clinical nurse specialist and manager of the cardiac rehabilitation program at Adventist Health Sonora, said there were 9,996 patient visits related to cardiac health in the past year.

Mena’s mantra is “small changes can make an enormous difference in your health.”

Diet and exercise are primary indicators of cardiac health, but people should also evaluate their individual risk factors to determine if they are at risk, she said.

Inherited risk factors include genetics, aging and gender, while modifiable factors include hypertension, obesity, diabetes, stress, smoking, inactivity and cholesterol.

Joanne Rios, clinical nurse specialist at Adventist Health Sonora and founder of the cardiac rehabilitation program, added moderation in all things was beneficial.

“A positive outlook on life probably helps the heart more than anything else,” Rios said. “And the real fountain of youth is exercise.”

Kacie Martinez, 21, of Sonora, walked toward the rear of the crowd with her son, Liam Jackson, 3, and her mother, Jan Duran, 55, a cardiopulmonary imaging technician at the hospital.

She hadn’t experienced any heart problems herself, but she chose to participate in the walk to show support for the survivors advocating for their cardiac health.

“The heart is such an important organ of the body. Life is short already, so why make it shorter?”

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.