LEEDS, Ala. (WIAT) - Joy O'Neal is the type of person who believes everything that's happened in her life lead her to this moment. It's the five-year anniversary of the Red Barn in Leeds, where O'Neal is the executive director. Two years ago, she couldn't imagine making it to this point--but more on that in a minute.
O'Neal co-founded the Red Barn after seeing how horses had benefited her own children. "Every moment that you were here, every chore that you did--from cleaning a stall, to greeting a student, to showing a student how to do something they didn't know how to do before--it's exhausting," smiled O'Neal, "but it's absolutely worth every single moment. I don't think anybody here would have it any other way."
The Red Barn now sees around 100 adults and children each week with disabilities or special circumstances. O'Neal and her capable staff have watched as the clients have gained confidence and found healthier lifestyles. The facility hosts everything from camps and riding classes to training others to learn what the staff members do each day.
O'Neal said she can relate to the children to a certain extent, because she never known her biological father. "I know what it's like for children who maybe felt some of the things I felt growing up," she explained. "That they need a place to belong and a place to know that they're loved and accepted and that they're good enough just as they are--even if that may be slightly broken on the inside or even on the outside."
O'Neal said as a child, she had a wonderful relationship with her stepfather--but her birth father left when she was young, and she never heard from him again.
Then two years ago, O'Neal began to feel out of sorts. She was tired all the time, her heart raced, and she was gaining weight. She decided to consult her doctor. "Of course, the easy answer was that it was because there was so much going on at the barn," O'Neal said. "That I needed to take a break, and that also, because of hitting that middle age mark at 45, it was easy to sort of write that off as menopause or midlife changes."
O'Neal accepted the diagnosis, but continued to feel miserable. "I think because I work here, and I work with such amazing children that face so many challenges in their life through the day...I felt like the tiredness that I was having and the way that I was feeling...like it was all my fault. I would look at the kids that we serve, and I would see the ones having a hard time even standing and I would think, 'quit whining. You're able to stand up, quit complaining. There's nothing wrong with you'."
But something was wrong with O'Neal. She wouldn't find out what until much later, after a car accident. That's when she decided to get life insurance.
As part of the routine exam, O'Neal found that her EKG came back abnormal. Still, her doctor told her that there was probably a made mistake during the test. O'Neal got a second EKG that came back with the same result. "A complete left bundle branch block," O'Neal said. She was in congestive heart failure.
"I think if I had been a man presenting the same symptoms, I would have been immediately seen by a cardiologist," O'Neal said.
A volunteer at the Red Barn directed O'Neal to UAB, where she became one of the first patients at their new Women's Heart Clinic. The clinic officially opened in February of 2017.
"She saw several providers," Dr. Salpy Pamboukian, Director of the UAB Women's Heart Health Clinic explained. "Unfortunately, they weren't able to identify what was going on with her--but she persisted because she knew something was wrong."
Pamboukian explained that the clinic opened for women exactly like O'Neal. She said most women don't realize that heart disease is the #1 killer of women in the United States, and that the presentation is often different in women than it is in men.
Women's symptoms can be nonspecific, and easily diagnosed as something else. She said it's also important for women to realize that you can inherit the risk factors that predispose you to heart disease.
"It's critically important," Pamboukian said. "So you need to listen to your body if you think there's something wrong. You definitely want to get checked out if you're not satisfied with the answers you're getting from your providers. Then, you need to seek a second opinion."
O'Neal said she's not placing the blame on her doctor. She just wants more women to be aware of their bodies and health. "I think what a shame it is that for the lack of a doctor just thinking about doing an EKG that it could have taken everything away that I loved and worked so hard for," she said sadly.
According to O'Neal, Pamboukian told her that they would be treating her heart condition very aggressively. "She said, you're already two years behind where you would have been treated if you were a man," O'Neal explained.
The good news is that after 6 months of treatment, O'Neal has noticed a remarkable change in her quality of life. She also dug into her past to figure out where the problems may have started. "After my dad left, he married someone else," she said. "I have half-siblings--one of whom has already died from heart disease."
O'Neal is viewing her experience as a great opportunity to bring awareness to women's health, and the new services that are available at UAB. "I'll continue to get stronger and continue to get better," she said. "I'm exercising and eating right and taking the medication that's literally saving my life. I'm just so grateful that they started this clinic."
To learn more about UAB's clinic, click here.
You can also schedule an appointment, or receive more information by calling 205-934-3438.
For more about The Red Barn, click here.
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