Overweight and weak, 10-year-old Mary Jackson Tofilon could not keep up physically with classmates at her Davenport school.
She dragged behind the other children during gym class and always came in last during exercises such as the 600-yard run. "I thought it was because I was heavy," Tofilon, now 57, said.
But a school-based heart screening indicated a serious problem, and the child and her mother found out Tofilon had been born with a defective aortic valve, which is key to the heart functioning properly.
In the past 47 years, Tofilon has had three open-heart surgeries and five pacemakers implanted.
"I'm a success story. I'm alive today because of good doctors and the good technology that's now available," she said.
Tofilon recently was named a WomenHeart Champion, a heart disease survivor who uses her voice and personal story to reach out and help other women take control of their health.
Heart disease is the top killer of men and women in the United States. In fact, 1 in 3 women will die of cardiovascular disease, and 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease.
Surgery in junior high
Tofilon was a student at Williams Junior High School in Davenport when she underwent her first surgery to repair the aortic valve. Doctors at University Hospitals in Iowa City performed the operation in 1967 since there was no heart surgery program in Davenport at the time.
She finished high school and graduated from Western Illinois University in Macomb. Doctors performed a second surgery on the valve in 1975. She married Peter Tofilon and was told by doctors that she would be able to have children.
Twin boys were born in 1979. A resident of Burlington, Iowa, at the time, Tofilon gave birth at University Hospitals because of her heart health. That turned out to be a lucky break.
One of the boys was born with a severe birth defect, but doctors immediately corrected the problem with surgery and he survived. That would not have happened had they needed to fly him from Burlington to Iowa City, she said.
The Tofilon family moved to Davenport in the 1980s, and she had her first pacemaker installed in 1985. Tofilon has kept all of the pacemakers she's had and shows them to the children she educates as a fourth-grade teacher at Truman Elementary School in Davenport.
Loses weight, gains passion
Seven years ago, Tofilon enrolled in Weight Watchers and shed 60 pounds. She now weighs in the 130-pound range and stands 5 feet 4 inches tall.
She practices yoga daily and exercises regularly, walking at the mall or on a treadmill during times of cold weather. The family recently installed an in-ground swimming pool to provide additional fitness opportunities.
Tofilon heard about the WomenHeart advocacy organization and was attracted to the idea of talking about heart health to others. She seeks outreach opportunities, including at her school and in the community. She's part of a "Sister Match" mentoring program, hands out "heart scarves" at area hospitals and helps promote the Jump Rope for Heart event in the schools.
"Mary's message is powerful because she puts a face on heart disease," said Lisa Baxter, Truman's principal. "Our school community has learned that you are never too young - or too old - to lower your heart disease risk," she said. "It is crucial to educate everyone about healthy lifestyle habits as well as heart disease warning signs."
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Baxter has been influenced by Tofilon's work. "Mary's story inspires me to take charge of my health, to map out lifestyle choices by taking risk factors, family history and lifestyle into account," she said.
Tofilon is one of 65 women accepted into the WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. She attended the event in October 2009, during a seasonal break from her teaching job.
WomenHeart is the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease, a patient advocacy organization that represents 41 million women who live with or are at risk for heart disease, according to materials supplied by the organization.
Tofilon's "Class of 2009" impressed Lisa M. Tate, who heads up WomenHeart, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C. "These 65 women are living with the most devastating of diseases and yet have made a conscious decision and selfless commitment to help other women - young and old - live heart-healthy lives and support those currently living with the disease," she said.
It's not apparent
Most people who meet Tofilon have no idea she has heart disease. "I am truly blessed to be alive," she said.
As a WomenHeart Champion, she makes a PowerPoint presentation on heart health and enjoys the question-answer time that follows. She also advocates that women increase their knowledge about the heart and be prepared to challenge doctors. "Do the research," she said. "I think doctors respect you when you know what you are talking about."
The WomenHeart organization and training has enriched Tofilon's life. "It's made me be aware of others with heart issues, many of which seem to be more serious than mine. And I feel so lucky to have good doctors and good technology right here in Davenport," she said.