Theresa Nakagawa with husband Dan and oldest son Wade

Theresa Nakagawa spent her life putting the care of others before herself.

In 2012, the family and marriage therapist was caring for her older sister, who was recovering from back surgery, helping her manage daily activities, including walking her two dogs.

The sisters were out one afternoon when Nakagawa noticed a Chihuahua running loose. She took off after it, worried it would be harmed or cause an accident. But after running for a block or two, she was too winded and dizzy to continue.

She sat down on the curb, trying to catch her breath. After returning to her sister’s home, there was another problem: swelling in her ankles and feet.

But Nakagawa put her concerns aside. She’d received a call from her son, reporting that one of her cats needed emergency treatment. She didn’t see a doctor until a week later.

“The doctor said, ‘Theresa, it looks like you survived a heart attack,’ and I just laughed because I thought he was kidding,” said Nakagawa of Orange, California.

The then-50-year-old had figured the symptoms were because of premenopause.

Additional testing revealed she didn’t have any permanent heart damage. Nakagawa had elevated blood pressure and cholesterol, but didn’t require medication.

Her cardiologist advised her to cut her sodium intake and lose weight to protect her heart health. She also takes a daily baby aspirin prescribed by her doctor.

“It really woke me up that I needed to take better care of myself instead of focusing on taking care of everyone else,” Nakagawa said.

Nakagawa started focusing on her diet, eating healthy portion sizes, increasing the number of fruits and vegetables she eats, and favoring whole grains.

She also began exercising consistently for the first time, walking her two pugs twice a day, walking on the treadmill a few times a week and doing other exercises to build strength.

Theresa Nakagawa with husband Dan

Theresa Nakagawa with her husband Dan.

Now 53, Nakagawa has dropped 30 pounds and carries 154 pounds on her 5-foot-4 frame, down 50 pounds from her heaviest in 2002. Her blood pressure and cholesterol are now both in a normal range.

“I know that if I want to live long, I just need to maintain a healthy weight,” she said.

She’s also trying to do a better job of managing stress, and encourages others, especially women, to put themselves first.

“As mothers, we always put everyone else first and neglect our own health. Tending to other’s needs was just something I was hardwired to do,” said Nakagawa, who has two sons and a daughter, all in their 20s.

“It took a free-range Chihuahua to show me that I’m not invincible,” she said, “and if I continued doing what I was doing, I couldn’t be here to take care of my family.”

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Photos courtesy of Theresa Nakagawa