She survived six heart attacks: now this pageant queen is bringing cardiovascular health to Miss America

Jude Maboné
Jude Maboné, the current Miss District of Columbia, has led a team that raised US$41,914 for the American Heart Association. Photo credit: Courtesy Jude Maboné

By Kristen Rogers of CNN

At 16, Jude Maboné often went to bed wondering whether she would wake up the next morning. She'd recently had her first heart attack - and would go on to have five more by the age of 18, spurring her to create a bucket list that included a foray into pageantry (inspired by watching the film Miss Congeniality, Maboné told CNN).

While her peers were enjoying high school, every other week Maboné was in the hospital. An ostensibly unlikely candidate for heart disease, which she was later diagnosed with, Maboné had done everything right - there wasn't a history of such conditions in her family, and she was eating well, managing her stress and exercising. In fact, all her heart attacks had occurred while she was running. Embarrassed about having a condition most people associate with older age and poor lifestyle decisions, she isolated herself, never telling friends or teachers what she was going through.

But Maboné is now 28, and as the 2023 winner of the Miss District of Columbia pageant and a contestant in this year's Miss America pageant - which takes place January 14 and hasn't crowned a Miss District of Columbia as the national titleholder in 80 years - she's talking about it. 

"This is the most indiscriminate disease in the US, and it's also the thing that's killing the most people," Maboné said. "That's why a big part of me taking on the Miss America platform was to destigmatise this."

She's using her title to expand her advocacy work for proactive heart health and preparedness for cardiac emergencies, including working closely with the American Heart Association and other organisations to promote preemptive heart health awareness, helping to provide screenings to communities and implement plans for the use of automated external defibrillators, or AEDs, in schools. AEDs are "portable, life-saving devices designed to treat people experiencing sudden cardiac arrest" by electronically shocking the heart to restore its normal rhythm, according to the US Food and Drug Administration.

"Most people don't survive one heart attack - I survived six," Maboné said. "So I felt like there was a purpose there, and there was a responsibility to help other people be better off than I was."

A journey in persistence 

Born in Southern California in 1995, Maboné was one of four children raised by her single mother, who served in the Navy.

"My mom had a rule from the time we were in fifth grade to the time we graduated high school: to live in her house, we had to play a sport, play an instrument, learn a second language, join a club, have a leadership activity and take voice lessons," she said. (Her pageant talent is Italian opera.)

Competitive track and distance running were Maboné's sports, and the thing that would make her heart problems apparent. During the second half of a six-mile run on July 11, 2012, she started having chest pains that progressed to profuse sweating, difficulty breathing, dizziness, nausea and pain in her left shoulder.

Maboné had learned in health class that these were signs of an impending heart attack, but thought it unlikely due to her age and healthy lifestyle. However, she knew she needed help. She eventually took herself to the hospital. 

"Looking back now, I would have stayed put … and had someone run somewhere nearby to call 911," she said. "Calling 911 is always the first thing one should do when someone is experiencing symptoms and I'm grateful to be equipped with that information and to be in a position where I can share with others what to do in a cardiac emergency."

But even between the subsequent heart attacks Maboné suffered over the next two years, heart health tests she took were returning completely normal. Some specialists told her she was fine, and that the attacks were flukes - but her primary physician encouraged her to seek other opinions.

Of a potential cause for her condition, "my doctor who diagnosed me (with heart disease) told me that she believes that this type of condition is either hormonal or environmental, but we can't pinpoint where it came from because it's not genetic," Maboné said. "It's something I could potentially grow out of someday, or maybe not. It's something that could get worse. It's very inconclusive."

And raising awareness of cardiovascular health cases without enough information to identify a cause - like in Maboné's own case - is a key part of her platform, along with lobbying for increased funding for relevant medical research. "Heart disease kills more people than cancer," she explained, but in the US "it receives a very small percentage of funding (from medical research organisations)." 

Of the US$49.2 billion in National Institutes of Health's funding for 2023, the Heart, Lung and Blood Institute was budgeted US$4 billion - slightly over 8 percent of the funding compared with the approximate 13 percent and 15 percent allotted to the institutes for allergy and infectious diseases, and cancer, respectively.

"Although NIH Institutes and Centers each have areas of focus, NIH support of research in specific disease areas is not limited to any single institute or center," an NIH spokesperson said via email. "Often separate diseases are related, and a better understanding of one may reveal information about another. For example, diabetes is a known contributor to heart disease, and better understanding diabetes may give insight into incidences of related heart disease."

'Committed to bettering the US'

Maboné isn't "necessarily the person that people think of when they think about pageantry," she said, since she didn't grow up with it. By 2021, though, she had run for Miss District of Columbia seven times - at that point, she was 26 and, having aged out of the Miss America system, grieved the loss of what had become a dream. But when the pageant came under new leadership last year - and later announced a partnership with the American Heart Association as its national philanthropy, to boot - it upped the age limit for contestants to 28. 

And when then-24-year-old NFL athlete Damar Hamlin experienced cardiac arrest during a game in January 2023 - after getting hit in the chest area when he made a tackle - the nation was talking about cardiovascular issues among young people.

"I thought, 'All of these things are aligning. I should humble myself, get over my pride and try this one more time,'" Maboné said. "Because finally, it felt like the issue I've been talking about for a decade was finally one that people were taking seriously."

Instead of letting her condition limit her, she has gotten treatment - beta blockers, which slow activity that help control blood pressure, heart rate and more - and done the work needed to live the dynamic life she uses to educate others. "I'm actually in better physical and cardiac shape than I was pre- my heart attacks," Maboné said. "Because you have to work so hard to overcome it."

She wants other kids to have that same chance. 

It's why she advocates for the implementation of automated external defibrillators in schools - as well as the training of personnel who can use them. (Proposed legislation for "cardiac emergency response plans," thanks in part to Maboné's advocacy, will go before the DC City Council for a hearing soon.)

In combination with CPR, another focus of Maboné's advocacy, the use of AEDs within a few minutes of cardiac arrest saves lives, according to the FDA. "In my mind, the fact that these things aren't federally mandated is a problem," Maboné said.

"Damar Hamlin's life, (NBA player) Bronny James' life - they were saved because somebody knew that it was their job to call 911," Maboné told CNN. "Somebody else knew it was their specific task to start chest compressions. Somebody else got the AED."

As Maboné participates in the Miss America pageant, she's excited to "give representation" to the more than 121.5 million Americans who are living with cardiovascular disease, she said. 

"As Miss DC, I've been able to… touch thousands of people in DC and even beyond DC," Maboné said. "As Miss America, those thousands turn into millions. I just see the opportunity here to really tangibly change the way that this country views this disease in a way that I don't necessarily think I would get without the Miss America platform."

"And with the partnership with the American Heart Association, there'll be so many opportunities to leverage what they do and what I do to provide tangible change," she added - hosting larger-scale CPR trainings and heart screenings to help people approach their heart health proactively.

If you're having heart attack symptoms - such as chest pain, pain in the arms or shoulders, or shortness of breath - take them seriously and get them checked out by a doctor, Maboné said. "Don't let the doctor brush it off. There are a lot of incredible doctors," she added, "but you need to be your own best advocate."

Maboné also urged the criticalness of stress management even if you're taking care of your dietsleep and fitness. And since many lives are harmed or lost due to the lack of CPR administered by bystanders, she also suggested learning hands-only CPR, which is now the recommended form of the treatment. 

Miss America symbolises different things to different people, Maboné said: nostalgia, tradition, celebrity or beauty.

"To me, Miss America is somebody who… also has a goal and is driven and committed to bettering the US in some way," she said. "In my way, it's heart health, which I think is exactly what we need right now."