Kelly Gross with coworker Robert Dinkler at a Pilot Flying J general manager meeting in February. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Gross)

Kelly Gross with coworker Robert Dinkler at a Pilot Flying J general manager meeting in February. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Gross)

Kelly Gross thought the constant fatigue and periodic tightening sensation in her jaw and neck were simply signs of stress from her demanding job and five kids.

Then, one day on a smoke break, it struck much more violently.

The tightening spread quickly.

“It felt like someone was choking me,” said Gross, a general manager at the Pilot Travel Center in Troutville, Virginia.

She sat down, thinking she just needed to rest, but when the pain only worsened after 10 minutes, a manager called 911.

After undergoing quadruple bypass surgery – a common procedure after a heart attack – Gross returned to work. And she also returned to some of her old routines.

“I had a lot more energy, and so I thought bypass surgery fixed everything,” said Gross, just 41 when she had the heart attack. “I didn’t have a support system in place to make changes I knew I needed to make.”

About a year later, in 2015, it happened again.

This time, chest pain accompanied the tightening. She learned she’d need a stent – a mesh tubing to prevent blockages in blood vessels. Over the next 18 months, she needed three more of these procedures, which are typical after secondary heart attacks.

Gross is sharing her story as part of her employer’s participation in the American Heart Association’s “Life is Why We Give” campaign, which raises funds during American Heart Month in February to help save lives from heart disease and stroke. The two diseases are the world’s leading causes of death.

Pilot Flying J, which says on its website that it is the largest U.S. operator of travel centers with a network of over 750 locations, is one of 24 U.S. companies supporting the effort. Pilot Flying J invites guests to contribute by purchasing red heart icons, special edition 16-ounce red hot beverage cups, or by rounding up their purchases at the register.

Gross is doing her part for the cause individually as well.

During cardiac rehab, she learned how lifestyle changes can protect her heart health, and the role of genetics in health.

Both of Gross’s parents had high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Her mom died at 63 due to complications from atrial fibrillation, and her dad died at 57 from lung cancer.

“I knew my parents had health issues, but I didn’t realize how it would affect me,” she said.

Gross struggled with high blood pressure since her early 20s but didn’t always take her medicine.

“My blood pressure was still high when I’d take it, so I figured it didn’t matter,” she said. “Now, I realize, that should have been a big red flag.”

She also made other changes.

“Bad habits are bad habits, but this is also a genetic problem, so I have to help my kids realize that it’s not okay to spend all day laying around. You have to take care of your health,” she said.

Gross quit smoking, eliminated fried and fatty foods, added more fruits and vegetables, and drastically reduced sodium and sugary drinks. She also increased her physical activity, going to the gym, playing with her kids and finding opportunities to sneak in short walks. She lost 60 pounds in a year, which “made a big difference in how hard my heart has to work.”

Her kids joined her, cutting out fast food to work on their health.

Heather McNeill, 15, said watching her mom’s experience has changed her outlook. While she still struggles to find time to exercise, her diet is much healthier.

“Even as young as I am, it’s really important that I work on building healthy habits because this is in our genes,” she said.

Her mom is now rededicated to staying with Heather, and the rest of her family, on the journey.

“Time with my kids is really important and I have to do what I can to be there by taking care of my health,” Gross said.

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