Star Jones is noted for being an outspoken attorney, author and TV personality, but it wasn’t until she was diagnosed with heart disease and had elective open heart surgery in 2010 that she learned her true purpose in life.

I was told, at 47 years old, I needed open heart surgery. I always knew I had a heart murmur and had exhibited some classic symptoms of heart disease when I was younger. I was extremely fatigued and short of breath. I would get lightheaded if I went from sitting to standing too quickly. I got intense heart palpitations, and I would get nauseous. Since I was morbidly obese, I would attribute these symptoms to being overweight. Weight can mask a myriad of things. I had weight loss surgery in 2003; by 2005, I had gone from 307 pounds to my very thinnest weight of 145 pounds. I lost more than I weighed, and I was in good physical shape and played tennis and exercised instead of being driven around in a limousine.

It wasn’t until December 2009 that everything started to manifest. A year earlier, I found out I had fluid around my heart. I had to have it extracted. Within six months, the fluid came back. My cardiologist admitted me, and for two days, I had every test imaginable. That’s when the heart disease diagnosis was made. I had a big choice to make. I decided to have open heart surgery to save my life. I was at my healthiest when I chose to have the surgery. I was scared beyond belief but planned every aspect of it. I chose the anesthesiologist I wanted, the surgeon and when I wanted to go into the hospital. It was my way of maintaining some control over a situation in which I had no control. That’s one of my messages to women: I became the captain of my own health. I took the bull by the horns and cared enough about myself to save my own life. According to one of our surveys for the American Heart Association, nearly 40 percent of people thought they had ideal heart health when, in reality, less than 1 percent of Americans have an ideal profile.

I had open heart surgery on March 17 because it was St. Patrick’s Day. The city would be on fire having fun, and I didn’t want anybody thinking about me. I wanted to go in with the least amount of tension. I made a stipulation to my doctor: “I’m only going to have this surgery if you promise me I can be home by my birthday.” My birthday is March 24. I literally walked out of the hospital six days later. I was on bed rest the following week. My parents moved in with me for the month following the surgery (during which I had been on the heart-lung machine for 22 minutes while my heart was out of my body). It took me 30 minutes to walk from my bedroom to the bathroom, which is in my bedroom, then I would need to sleep for six hours because open heart surgery is taxing on the body. At two weeks, I started home rehabilitation. The nurse would get me out of the bed, make me move my arms, legs and do breathing exercises so I could get that fluid out of my chest. I had to learn to hold a pillow over my chest if I coughed because it was so painful. I had four weeks of at-home physical therapy, then it was time for me to do outpatient cardiac rehab. I would go to Mount Sinai’s Rehabilitation Center. I was the youngest person in the class. I started being able to only walk on the treadmill for six minutes, ride the bike for six minutes and do the rower for six minutes. It took an hour to do those things. By the time those three months were over, I could do what they classified as a submaximum workout, which means I would push myself just below my maximum.

You don’t know your purpose until you’re walking in it. I knew right then and there what my purpose in life was: I was going to volunteer and let other women know how they can be heart healthy. I joined Celebrity Apprentice during the first week in October. I wanted to raise money and awareness about heart disease in African-Americans. Since I’ve been national volunteer for the American Heart Association, I’ve been responsible for raising, at this point, almost $2 million. This means the world to me. As a volunteer, I get no compensation. I don’t want any because I’ve already been paid; I got my life back. I watch my weight, exercise regularly and exercise portion control. People ask, “What should I do to avoid heart disease?” The answer is, “Eat less and move more.” There it is. I’ve also reduced my stress. Take some time for yourself. Reducing your stress level can really aid in improving your heart health. My little puppy—a Maltese named Pinky—is my emotional support animal. My blood pressure doesn’t go too high. When you have to care for something that depends on you for everything, it really focuses you and keeps you in a gentle spirit. It’s interesting that my friends say, “Star, you’re different now.” And I am different now. Having your heart taken out of your body will make a sister different.