Star Jones talks open heart surgery, being 'morbidly obese' and the importance of the Affordable Care Act


Seven years ago, Star Jones decided to get open heart surgery after a stark warning from her doctor. The former co-anchor of "The View" had lost over half of her body weight, yet she was still at major risk of heart disease.

In preparation for her successful operation -- in part because it was preventative and in part because she had ample insurance -- Jones was able to think through every single aspect of the surgery. She interviewed her doctors, she made sure her blood had enough iron in it and she lined up cardiac rehabilitation for afterwards, to name just a few things.

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Of course, everyone isn't as fortunate as to have the time or money or healthcare access to make such decisions. Working with the American Heart Association and raising special awareness during February's American Heart Month, the television personality is making her support of the Affordable Care Act known so that people around the country can be as lucky as she was.

I recently caught up with Star Jones, who is a spokesperson for the American Heart Association, during her time in New York City this month for Go Red for Women to talk about raising awareness and encouraging action around heart health, her moment of realization that she was "morbidly obese," her experience of undergoing open heart surgery and everyday changes women can make to ensure that they remain heart healthy.

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Check out my full conversation with Star Jones below:

You've talked about how you want to focus on action going forward as you continue to raise awareness about women's heart health. What does "action" mean to you?

It really means having women taking an active interest and being active participants in their own health. That means knowing your numbers -- BMI, cholesterol, blood pressure, not smoking, being mindful of your eating choices and your exercise -- and a new piece that we've added this year is getting enough rest. Especially when it comes to busy women, sleeping is not something that people put as a priority on their list. There are a number of studies that are being conducted through AHA partnerships that speak to the need for sleep and how it revitalizes the body. Those are the more action-oriented things that we can do.

80 percent of all cardiovascular disease is pretty much preventable. That's a big number, and it's preventable through good lifestyle choices. That has to do with what you eat, how much rest you get, how much exercise you get. But, sadly, it also has to do with your access to health care, what resources you have and what neighborhood you live in. That can be scary.

What are some changes that the average person can make in their daily lives to help combat heart disease?

Eat less and move more. Every time I talk about this, I get the feeling that somebody wants me to provide them with the quick fix. I have the answer, but it's not one that any of us wants to hear! [For example,] I think about what choice I made for dinner last night: I made the choice to have grilled chicken and a green salad. At the restaurant, they make it cajun style, but I know that's too heavy to eat too late, so I purposefully took half of the food given to me and had it put away for takeout. It's in the refrigerator.

And you'll have it for another meal.

Exactly. And I can sincerely say to you that I wasn't hungry at all. Just half your plate! That's a really easy thing to do. One of the things my doctors told me when I started with the half plate thing was, "Take it off, and put it away." Most of us are too lazy to get back up, take it back out of the container and put it back on the plate. You have to actually ask your brain, "Do I really want it that much?" And the answer is always "No." You have to trick yourself!

I also actually mix up my exercise, too. I spin -- I'm going to SoulCycle in the morning! -- I joined a tennis clinic in Chicago with my significant other and that's something we do every Saturday together, we do cycling class twice a week and I do water class and pilates twice a week. I never have time to be bored, because everything is fun and I use the gym as a sort of meeting place. I have really incorporated it as a part of my life.

I know a lot of people can't afford a gym membership, but a can of peas or spinach are one pound. So, when you are watching television, you can lift without question. You can get your bicep curls in! You have a pound in your hand, and there's no reason not to do it. There are very small, incremental moves you can make that won't cost you a lot of money. There's not a woman alive that I know of that doesn't enjoy some sort of shopping, too: Walk the mall, take the stairs!

You're involvement with National Wear Red Day and the American Heart Association started seven years ago when you had open heart surgery.

Seven years ago! Wow. I had done so many things right. I had lost a bunch of weight after having been morbidly obese for the vast majority of my adult life, and I made the healthcare decision with my doctor to have weight loss surgery in 2003. By 2005 I had lost 160 pounds -- a whole human being! -- and, at that time, I had lost more than I weighed. I'm actually very proud, because I'm back to having lost more than I weigh now, which is a very good thing. But, for 12 years, I've been able to keep off at least 150 pounds.

That's pretty amazing.

It's really something where I was able to change my life. Imagine, after you do all of that, that the doctor says, "You have heart disease." I said, "What do you mean I have heart disease?" I thought it was an old white dude's disease! I sincerely did. But that's not the face of heart disease; this is the face of heart disease. [Points to self] It can impact anyone, and it just sort of smacked me in the face. I consider myself a smart person -- America came to me for years to get answers [on "The View"]! -- but, for someone so smart, I really didn't know anything about heart disease. I then made the decision that I was going to have open heart surgery -- which is weird, because for all practical purposes it was elective and preventative.

I had great insurance and great resources, and it scares me more than anything that other people might not have that access. It's why I've been a very big proponent of the Affordable Care Act. Not for political reasons, but for practical reasons. I am a living, walking, breathing example of what preventative medicine can do.

I say all of that to tell you that I had no choice after electing to have open heart surgery -- I walked out of the hospital after six days, I had a month of physical therapy at my house and thee months of intense cardiac rehabilitation at Mount Sinai Hospital. I always say that open heart surgery saved my life, but cardiac rehabilitation gave me my life back. It allowed me to do the things that I've always done, and I'm not sure that other women are going to have access to that anymore.

As you said, you're really focusing on women during American Heart Month, which -- now more than ever -- really ties into a bigger movement where women are sticking up for one another and supporting one another. It couldn't be coming at a better time.

100 percent. Women are taking charge of our lives, minds, bodies and souls. I used to think that my law degree was my greatest asset, but it's [actually] my health. I learned that late in life, because I was one of those people that was sedentary, didn't make good food choices, didn't exercise. I was too fancy and too rich, quite frankly. Let's call it arrogance, ego and ridiculousness. Because I could get a cart around a resort, I would psych myself into saying, "Because I'm fabulous, I can get a cart!" Instead of admitting "Your fat ass can't walk around this resort."

The moment I stopped making those words sound pretty -- I wasn't "fluffy" or "plus-sized" or "full-figured" -- I was morbidly obese. I had to say those words to myself. I was not "phat," I was "fat." I was killing myself, and, once I made it real, there was nothing in the world that could stop me from getting healthy.

Was that realization immediate?

Between my 40th and 41st birthdays, I gained 70 pounds in a year, and it was also my most successful financial year. Period. So, there was something that was clearly not clicking, and a friend came to me after my 41st birthday and said, "You can't walk without breathing heavy. I'm worried that one day I'll come into your house after not hearing from you for three days, and you will have died of a heart attack." That slaps you in the face. You have to know that the person is coming to you without an agenda, and you have to recognize that she's telling the truth. The moment I heard that, I was like a dog with a bone; I was relentless.

I actually approached heart disease the same way. When I found out that there was an abnormality, I wanted to know everything about it. I researched the best doctors. I had a myriad of things that were wrong with my heart, so they had to plot it out like a mathematical problem that they had to solve to figure it out. I learned things that I only knew because insurance allowed me to get certain kinds of tests. I was diligent in not waiting to make these aggressive moves, which gave me time to plan my open heart surgery. I spent eight weeks pumping up my blood with iron, because I was iron deficient. They had to input iron directly into my vein, and I ended up literally looking like a heroin addict because my vein would collapse every time. But for eight straight weeks we did it -- we got my blood up to the requisite amount by my surgery. But, that was only because I had enough time. Think about the person that has a heart attack and ends up immediately in the emergency room. I wouldn't have had an opportunity to pick the valve man or get my blood ready or pick out my anaesthesiologist, who I interviewed!

Everything came to the perfect meeting place, but it was only because I had time. It was only because it was preventative. If we don't have universal health care that allows for people to make those good choices -- and, by the way, because we could plan out my open heart surgery, it didn't cost nearly as much as it would've if I had had a heart attack. Insurance pays for all of that, and it's a whole heck of a lot cheaper to make sure people have that healthcare.

Looking past this month of awareness, what's the ultimate goal here?

The AHA has but one goal: To reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease in our country. That's it. It's such a simple mission. The AHA has really put forth a lot of effort to focus on what we can really do in the next 20 years, and it's a long project. Behaviors don't change overnight, but activism can. You can be inspired to move your feet, to make your phone calls, to make better choices. As I shared with you in the beginning, I've been spending the last seven years focused on awareness. Now, my focus is on action. I'm raising money, and I'm asking for money directly. I don't know anyone that hasn't been affected by cardiovascular disease. 1 in 26 women will die from breast cancer. 1 in 3 women die from heart disease.

Not enough people know that.

Nope. So, that's my job: To hammer that home, but also to give you good tools to prevent it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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