Tisha Dixon-Williams first became concerned when, for three straight days in 2006, her vision blurred and she became dizzy when rising from her desk at work or walking across the room. Then she bumped into a nearby wall.
"That's when I knew I wasn't just tired from working long hours. I needed to go to the doctor," says Dixon-Williams, 34, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y.
A few days later, she didand not a moment too soon. Her blood pressure had soared to 190 over 120, dangerously high compared to a normal of 120 over 80. "If I hadn't had the advantage of being young, I probably would've suffered a stroke," she says.
Though Dixon-Williams was only 32 at the time and lived a fairly active lifestyle, a diagnosis of high blood pressure was not a complete shock. Her mother was diagnosed with the condition in her early 30s, and her maternal grandmother died from complications of congestive heart failure, an illness linked to high blood pressure. Only a month before her diagnosis, her father suffered a heart attack. "Sometimes, having high blood pressure is just in your genetic makeup, like your mom's eyes or her smile," she says.
Her doctor prescribed a twice-daily dose of blood pressure medicine and advised her to reduce salt in her diet. But Dixon-Williams resolved to do much more to keep her blood pressure in check.
She discovered the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women campaign website,
www.goredforwomen.org, where she found helpful tips on how to eat healthfully to prevent heart disease and improve her overall health.
Knowing that regular exercise would be good for her cardiovascular system, she signed up for mambo, salsa and ballroom dance lessons three to four times a week. "I wanted to do something I enjoyed, and I'd always been that person who's first on the dance floor and last off," says Dixon-Williams, who danced off more than 20 pounds within a year.
Inspired in 2007 to spread the knowledge and healthy habits she'd benefited from, she founded a health ministry at her church, the 1,000-member First Calvary Baptist in Brooklyn, a community with notoriously high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer.
"Tisha's really helping our congregation learn how to eat better so we can reduce our risk of high blood pressure and diabetes," says the Rev. Earl Jones, First Calvary's pastor. "I'm eating a lot more green vegetables and fish, and fewer starches and red meat."
Dixon-Williams adds a dose of healthy advice to the weekly church bulletina reminder to get your blood pressure checked at least annually, for instance. "It's a silent killer," she notes. "You could have no symptoms and be in danger."
She also organizes 40 days of healthy eating for the congregation each yearthe church provides healthful snacks such as pistachios, brown rice and green teaand a summer health fair featuring speakers from area hospitals, who talk about high blood pressure, depression and other health-related topics.
For her resolve to spread the word about heart health, Dixon-Williams was one of eight women chosen in 2008 to represent the Go Red for Women campaign in a series of public service announcements. "They had banners along Seventh Avenue with our faces, and I've seen myself on billboards and buses. It's been an amazing experience," she says.
Meanwhile, she's become a better dancer and even has won medals for her rumba and tango at a state competition. Still, the best part of her crusade has been hearing about small lifestyle changes that people in her church are making to become healthier. "I've seen for myself that just taking little steps can add up to a huge difference," she says. "And I love showing people that healthy living doesn't have to be boring."