Most people don’t expect to have a heart attack, but when Nicole Coppersmith felt the distinct tightening in her chest it came as huge surprise.

She was only 34 at the time - had never smoked or been a drinker and wasn’t obese. But, as it turned out, Coppersmith's genes and the odds were against her.

There’s a history of heart disease in the family trees of Coppersmith’s mother and father. On her mother’s side, strokes were common and several cousins on her father’s side suffered from heart attacks in their mid-20’s and 30’s. Most of them were athletes, Coppersmith said, but she is the first one to survive. Now, she's making good use of her good fortune.

Coppersmith leads Helping Healing Hearts (HHH), a non-profit organization that she created to fill the void in education and support for recovering cardiac patients, she said.

"Once you're done with rehab, where do you go from there? Who do you talk to?" Coppersmith said. "Some people experience depression and withdraw from their family because they think they don't understand the recovery process."

When Coppersmith finished cardiac rehab last June and had several questions about her future and no clue who to ask. She took on several speaking engagements in middle Tennessee to share her story and quickly found that many other heart attack survivors were also looking or a place to turn for help and answers.

Through HHH, Coppersmith organizes monthly support group meetings and educational seminars for the patients. Group members offer encouragement to one another to kick heart-unhealthy habits like smoking and maintaining a poor diet. Coppersmith said having a shoulder to lean on is an important part of a successful recovery.

"It was hard for me to think 'I have to take this medicine everyday or something else could happen.'" Coppersmith said. Now, she provides an outlet for people like her to find respite from such fears.

HHH is incorporated with the state of Tennessee as a non-profit organization, Coppersmith said. The organization plans to soon offer grants to cardiac patients by the end of the year. To be considered for a grant, patients currently having trouble paying for cardiac rehab services are encouraged to visit helpinghealinghearts.org to share their story.

The group also provides financial assistance to afford members the opportunity to continue their rehab programs after heart surgery. Coppersmith said a patient's insurance copay can run between $35 and $50 a session, adding up to about $2,000 in out-of-pocket expenses during the course of a typical 12-week exercise program. After that, it is up to the patient to continue the heart healthy excercise regimen, she said.

"A lot of the people would quit cardiac rehab because they can’t afford it, but it's as important as the procedure itself to help you be aware of heart health," she said. "It was tugging at my own heart in a sense to see these people who needed help."

HHH has partnered with 12 local gyms which offer free membership so that its members can continue rehabilitative exercises on their own, Coppersmith said.

For Coppersmith, this February's Heart Health Awareness Month brings about a personal victory and bit of relief. It marks the one year anniversary of her heart attack. Doctors say the likelihood of having a second heart attack is much higher in the year following an attack.

With the milestone behind her, Coppersmith said there isn't much she doesn't know about heart health and her focus will stay on educating and providing support for others.

"Rethink that fried food. Get up and move a bit. Be aware of your numbers when you have your annual physical," Coppersmith said. "Heart disease doesn’t discriminate on age or gender."

This article has been republished from Out & About Nashville, and was part of a series of first-person pieces written by the late Bobbi Williams.

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