Toni Braxton never imagined that the lyrics to her most famous song would come true -- or that a serious medical condition would put her name on another set of charts.
Three years ago this September, while performing the title role of Aida on Broadway, Grammy award-winner Toni Braxton experienced a truly life-transforming event. "I was changing costumes, about to do my big number before intermission, and I'm feeling really lightheaded," she recalls. "I didn't know what was wrong with me."
The next thing she remembers is waking up and being told she had passed out.
Braxton rose to fame as one of R&B's most successful singers during the mid-'90s. Her string of hits -- "Breathe Again," "Another Sad Love Song," "You Mean the World to Me," and the chart-topping "Un-Break My Heart"- inspired the sale of several million copies of her two albums. Her star continued to rise in the years following. She recorded her third album, made a happy marriage with music producer Keri Lewis, and garnered new accolades for her work on Broadway.
But suddenly Braxton found herself being rushed to the hospital. There, doctors told her she had pericarditis, a serious heart condition.
Often caused by a virus, pericarditis is an inflammation of the tissue that surrounds the heart. It can cause fluid to accumulate, which constricts the heart and reduces its ability to pump blood to the rest of the body. Braxton's doctors described her case as "probably middle stage," which refers to the degree to which the heart's pumping ability is compromised.
Braxton's medical diagnosis petrified her. After taking medication for about a year, she is now fully recovered. But what terrifies her even more today is the realization that she had unwittingly ignored many of the symptoms. "I missed all the signals," she tells WebMD.
Symptoms of pericarditis include sharp pain in the center or left side of the chest, increased heart rate, mild fever, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Untreated pericarditis can lead to potentially life-threatening complications, so early detection and treatment are imperative.
At the time of her episode, Braxton had given birth to her second son, Diezel, only five-and-a-half months earlier. She attributed her extreme fatigue to the new baby, despite the fact that she hadn't experienced the same level of exhaustion with her first child, Denim. And even though she was "crazy tired," she pushed on and immersed herself in Aida rehearsals.
A month before the incident, she also started having tightness and pain in the left side of her chest, but she again dismissed those sensations, this time attributing them to childhood asthma. And, being in her 30s, Braxton never thought a heart ailment could strike someone so young.
"When I was first told I had pericarditis, I said 'peri - what?' I had no idea what it was. I thought it was an older person's disease," she says.
Today, Braxton knows better. And as a spokesperson for the American Heart Association's "Red Dress" campaign, she's on a mission to educate women about their health -- especially women who think, like she once did, that it can't happen to them. She now advises women to become more proactive and involved in their health care. "Know what [medication] you're taking and why," she says. "Know what you're treating."
"I'm the poster child for women and people all over the world," says Braxton. "If it happened to me, it can happen to you. We can prevent it, we can fix it! Sometimes people get scared. They'll say, 'I don't want to go to the doctor, they might find something.' It's OK because you can get it taken care of. That's more important."
When it comes to health, the biggest mistake women make is never putting themselves first, she says.
"A lot of times, we don't have the time, but you've got to squeeze yourself in there some way. Women are so used to taking care of the household, the kids, and everything else, they always put themselves last."
Nieca Goldberg, MD, a cardiologist who heads women's cardiac care at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, agrees that women often brush symptoms aside. As they juggle family and job obligations, women fear that everything around them might collapse if they had to go to the hospital with a serious illness. With time in such short supply, it's important, Goldberg says, to develop a support network of friends and family members who can watch your child when you have a doctor's appointment, ideally with a physician who can accommodate you during early morning and evening hours.
An additional barrier is that women do not perceive heart disease as a real problem. According to the American Heart Association, less than 20% of women consider heart disease a threat, despite the fact that it's the No. 1 killer of women, taking more women's lives than all forms of cancer, including breast cancer.
"Instead of wasting your time worrying about symptoms, just get it checked out," says Goldberg, who has had many patients confess to her, after a medical procedure, that they hadn't been feeling well for a long time. "Women are very in touch with their bodies, and they know when something is not right."
Mona Lisa Schulz, MD, a neuropsychiatrist and the author of Awakening Intuition and the newly published The New Feminine Brain, also believes that women inherently know when something is amiss and should be more willing to act on it.
"It's important that women always attend to the first symptoms in their bodies," she says. "These symptoms are part of the feminine brain's intuition that lets you know something is out of balance in your life. The sense of warning and foreboding increases and escalates until you actually get an illness. Your body has to get your attention because every symptom is part of the body's way of saying that something needs to be attended to."
But Schulz also wants to make sure that women see a physician to check out the symptoms. "You always want to balance your right-brain intuition with left-brain fact," she says, suggesting that women develop and trust their intuitive awareness by discussing these subjects with friends, counselors, or spiritual advisors or going to doctors who specialize in emotional issues.
For Braxton, her biggest hit, "Un-Break My Heart," has taken on special meaning. "I always hear older people saying, 'When you sing songs, they actually become your life,'" she says. After her bout with pericarditis and healing her own heart, she's helping other women prevent the breakage in the first place. For Braxton, it's now all about harmony. The proof is her newest album, titled Libra -- her astrological sign, symbolized by the scales of balance.
But Braxton emphasizes that paying attention should apply not only to heart disease but to any illness. She's especially gratified when fans follow up with her. "Often they'll say, 'I went to the doctor and got myself checked out,'" she says. "It makes me feel good."