WASHINGTON – Gail Mates turned her life around, and she says she did it for love.
Mates says she was digging her “grave with a knife and a fork” for years before her daughter helped to change the 55-year-old’s life.
She had all the risk factors for heart disease: Family history, hypertension, diabetes and obesity. She also overate — partly out of depression — to the extent that she needed esophagus surgery and a sleep apnea machine.
“The only exercise at that point I was getting was going from my couch to my kitchen to get my embarrassing breakfast,” Mates says. “It was potato chips, cookies and a cherry Coke.”
Her daughter, Alyssa Hirsh, was 17 when Gail Mates hit bottom. She worried constantly about her mom, she says.
“I had a lot of anxiety over her at night because I knew she had all these problems and she wasn’t doing anything about it,” Hirsch says.
So Alyssa began to check on her mother regularly to see if she was still breathing. Mates says it broke her heart to watch her daughter cry.
“She would plead, she would beg, for me to change my unhealthy lifestyle,” she says. “And she said if I kept going like this, I was killing myself and I wasn’t going to be around for her or her children. And she was absolutely right.”
Mates says she could not bear her daughter’s pain, so she decided to make a change. She joined a weight loss competition, cleaned up her diet and began exercising a few minutes every week.
“The focus was on small, simple changes … and I have learned that small simple changes add up to really big results,” Mates says.
Fast forward three years and Mates is 60 pounds lighter and a bundle of energy. Her daughter — now 20 and a college junior — has become her workout partner at the gym.
“The fact that we are cheering each other on and doing it together is really amazing for me,” Hirsh says.
What is truly amazing is how far her mother has come. Mates, who lost her father to heart disease, says “I was a ticking time bomb…and if it wasn’t for my daughter who came in and gave me the motivation to change, I don’t know if I would be here today.”
Mates says nothing can stop her now.
She swims, takes Zumba classes and is training for a half marathon. If it’s raining or snowing, she gets in her daily exercise by walking endless circles around her Haymarket home. From time to time when she is working out, Mates glances at a picture of her daughter on her cellphone.
“It is always a constant reminder to me that … I never want to go back the being that person because if I do ever go back for a second, I won’t be around for her,” she says.
Mates is now trying to help other at-risk women as a mentor and spokesperson for the American Heart Association.
She credits Hirsh for giving her the push she needed. On Valentine’s Day, her daughter has a prominent place in her heart.
“She was the inspiration and motivation for me,” Mates says. “Without her, I would not be here.”
Hirsh, meanwhile, is only too aware that her mother’s family medical history is her own. While trim and fit, she has been diagnosed with borderline high cholesterol.
She says she never really associated Valentine’s Day before with her mother’s heart health, but now the connection is strong and personal.
“My love is what changed her habits and made her the person she is today,” Hirsh says. “Her love for me is why she decided to make this change.”
Editor’s Note: Throughout February, WTOP will be focusing on women’s heart health, with information on prevention, treatment and reasons for hope. We also will bring you the incredible stories of survivors from the region — a sisterhood of women celebrating a second chance at life with a commitment to help others.