Since losing her mom to heart disease at 53, health and fitness are her priorities

By Diane Daniel, American Heart Association News

Sarah Steinsiek at Pinnacle Mountain State Park in Arkansas. Hiking is one of the ways she stays healthy since her mom's death from heart disease. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Steinsiek)
Sarah Steinsiek at Pinnacle Mountain State Park in Arkansas. Hiking is one of the ways she stays healthy since her mom's death from heart disease. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Steinsiek)

Sarah Steinsiek grew up in small-town Arkansas watching her mother, Ruthie Hare, join all sorts of fitness groups. Naturally slim, Ruthie especially loved aerobics and calisthenics.

She had another motivation, too. She knew it would help ward off the heart disease that had plagued nearly every member of her family.

Yet there was one healthy step she couldn't take. Ruthie kept smoking cigarettes, despite knowing the risks.

One day when Sarah was 8 and her brother, TJ, was 6, Ruthie said she didn't feel well. She had pain in her arms and chest. She lowered herself into a recliner, hoping the sensations would go away.

When they didn't, she recognized the symptoms experienced by her parents and several siblings. She told her children: "I think I'm having a heart attack."

Sarah called 911.

Her mother had indeed had a heart attack. She was 39.

From there, Ruthie worked to improve her health. She started to focus more on nutrition, stopped drinking and did her best to give up cigarettes. She tried cessation programs, pills, patches and hypnosis. They all worked, but only for a while.

She developed other health issues as well: gastrointestinal issues, circulatory problems, fibromyalgia and peripheral artery disease, where fatty deposits and calcium build up in the walls of the arteries.

As much as Sarah feared for her mother's health, she started smoking at age 14. A chubby child, she thought it would help keep her weight down. She also wanted to look cool and fit in with her friends at school.

Like her mom, Sarah became a fan of cardio activities. While her mom did it mostly for heart health, Sarah's motivation was keeping her weight down. She wanted to be thin, which to her meant attractive. She ran regularly and counted calories.

As Sarah continued to smoke, her mother finally stopped for good. But her health never improved. She started having blood clots and mini-strokes.

In December 2014, Ruthie died from a coronary embolism, a blood clot in her heart. She was 53.

That week, Sarah, then 23 and sick with grief, smoked a carton of cigarettes, twice her usual amount.

Sarah Steinsiek (right) with her mom, Ruthie Hare, in 2012. Ruthie died from heart disease in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Steinsiek)
Sarah Steinsiek (right) with her mom, Ruthie Hare, in 2012. Ruthie died from heart disease in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Steinsiek)

A few months later, Sarah had her own health scares, including high blood pressure and a fast heart rate. Doctors thought they could be stress-related.

Maybe, Sarah thought. But maybe it was also her body's way of telling her to clean up her lifestyle. That, she knew, would be the best way to honor her mother, a beautiful soul and a loving mom.

Sarah, now 33, has made great progress.

She quit smoking, although it hasn't been easy. Now living in Calhoun, Louisiana, she's a district training manager at a large retail chain. She's especially proud of being smoke-free because about half the people she's around are smokers.

She's also become more comfortable with her body.

While maintaining a strict diet helped her lose 60 pounds and improved her cholesterol and blood pressure, she knew that plan wasn't sustainable. However, she became so interested in nutrition that she began studying it formally. She hopes to get a degree in it.

"I wanted to do it for my own benefit, but also so I could use my training to help others someday," she said.

She also started working with a personal trainer to work on her strength and mobility. Her favorite activity is hiking, especially in the Arkansas mountains.

Sarah's brother, TJ, calls his sister "a role model and an inspiration." He lives with their older half-brother, Corey, in San Antonio. They're both trying to quit smoking and keep active by shooting hoops.

Corey, who has a different mother, is impressed that Sarah's lifestyle change "seems less about her weight and more about how it makes her heart healthy, makes her brain healthy and makes her whole being feel better."

Every year since her mom passed, Sarah has commemorated her mom's birthday in a special way. She calls that day – March 19 – "Ruthie Day."

"I always ask everyone to do one random, selfless act of kindness, just like my mom did every day," she said. "Like she always said, we never know what each person is going through."

And now that she's cleaned up her lifestyle, Sarah hopes to enjoy many more Ruthie Days.

"I want to see my friends and families grow up and see their children grow up," she said. "I want to do and see as much as I can on this beautiful earth for as long as I can. I know all too well that I only have one life, and I want to take care of it."

Stories From the Heart chronicles the inspiring journeys of heart disease and stroke survivors, caregivers and advocates.

American Heart Association News Stories

American Heart Association News covers heart disease, stroke and related health issues. Not all views expressed in American Heart Association News stories reflect the official position of the American Heart Association. Statements, conclusions, accuracy and reliability of studies published in American Heart Association scientific journals or presented at American Heart Association scientific meetings are solely those of the study authors and do not necessarily reflect the American Heart Association’s official guidance, policies or positions.

Copyright is owned or held by the American Heart Association, Inc., and all rights are reserved. Permission is granted, at no cost and without need for further request, for individuals, media outlets, and non-commercial education and awareness efforts to link to, quote, excerpt from or reprint these stories in any medium as long as no text is altered and proper attribution is made to American Heart Association News.

Other uses, including educational products or services sold for profit, must comply with the American Heart Association’s Copyright Permission Guidelines. See full terms of use. These stories may not be used to promote or endorse a commercial product or service.

HEALTH CARE DISCLAIMER: This site and its services do not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always talk to your health care provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, please contact a qualified health care professional immediately. If you are in the United States and experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 or call for emergency medical help immediately.