Near-Death Experience Pushes Leading Black Influencer To Level Up Her Heart Health

Following last month’s virtual Her Heart Summit that brought together thousands of Black women to celebrate Black women’s heart health and sisterhood, Stephanie Johnson – Vice President of Communications and Strategies for the American Medical Association – sat down with Coach Gessie – nutritionist and Founder of – for a personal one-on-one conversation about their experiences with heart health and how Black women can reduce the prevalence of heart disease through sisterhood and solidarity.

Stephanie Johnson: Coach Gessie, we participated in the Her Heart Summit together, along with other Release the Pressure events, and we keep coming back to this place. Why are you on this path, and why is it so important for you that Black women make self-care a priority?

Coach Gessie: We’re so addicted to showing up for everyone and that we can’t show up for ourselves. The greatest challenge I face is retiring the superwoman cape every single day. Even as a Health Coach empowering women to holistically achieve optimal health, I too have to resist this relentless pressure. During the triple pandemic of 2020, the trauma of COVID19, the economic crisis, and systemic racism exponentially multiplied my stress levels. This compounded by my pre-existing health conditions triggered some serious health issues, including high blood pressure and a brain aneurysm.

SJ: Can you talk more about your aneurysm?

CG: Systemic racism was on full display after the murder of George Floyd and the mass trauma we experienced as a community had my cortisol levels in overdrive. As Black people, it’s like our plane has crashed and we are trying to recover from the devastation, while also having to fix and fly the plane—all at the same time. We absorb so much pain as Black women—we normalize and internalize it because we’ve been taught that our pain doesn’t matter. I had a headache for a while. My pressure was elevated by all the stress. Then one morning I woke up and it was the worst headache of my entire life. That pain said to me: “you’re going to listen today!” I knew I couldn’t keep hitting the snooze button on this alarm clock.

SJ: I don’t want to skate over that, that we absorb pain – when you look at our ancestry, that’s what we’ve been dealing with. We’ve been taught it from slavery. When my mom got congestive heart failure, she was still working. She couldn’t figure out how to turn herself off. That whole thing: “I can put the weight of the world on my shoulders.” Even in our own communities, to pass that onto our daughters – it’s something generational and it has got to stop.

CG: I think about our sisters who always say “another day” and put themselves last. We are brilliant, resilient, and MAGICAL, but we are also REAL and we are HUMAN. We are worthy and deserving of love and care. But we have been shaped by this narrative that we are not enough – we have to work to prove that we belong at the table and have had to be inhumanly strong.

SJ: Can you talk to me about why the “Release the Pressure” campaign is important to you?

CG: Because that is what we as Black women have to do – we need to release. Life is a pressure cooker. Every day, we’re faced with challenges that turn up that pressure. We must create these release valves in our lives that allow us to release that pressure throughout the day. We need to take off that cape.

I took the pledge because when I learned about Release the Pressure’s mission I was compelled by our collective mission to empower Black women to center our healing.

SJ: My mom used to always say “we are one soul.” We are pushing forward toward the same goal – healthier Black women. That’s our collective assignment. We will see Black women living healthier outcomes in our lifetime.

CG: Healing and health are easier when you know you’re not alone. You’ve got a squad right alongside you, and we’re not going to let you give up on yourself. We are going to do everything we can to support you.

SJ: Why do you believe it’s so important to celebrate the accomplishments of Black women, from motherhood to promotions?

CG: Celebration is contagious. When we celebrate one another, we frame new narratives about who we are, not just what we’ve achieved. I celebrate you because you are a beautiful, brilliant Black woman. Your accomplishments are just an expression of your greatness.

SJ: It’s the audacity of celebrating “She Did That” because there was a time when if you learned how to read, you couldn’t tell someone. We need to be the loudest cheerleaders in the room. That will create healthier Black women, healthier bodies, happier hearts.

I am so glad we are on this journey together – to ease on down the road with so many others. You are such a bright light. And I think a glowing woman can help another woman glow and be lit!