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Casey Christie / The Californian

Many tables were set up Friday at the DoubleTree Hotel for the 2014 Bakersfield Go Red For Women Luncheon which focused on improving women's health.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Nikki West overcame many obstacles with her heart condition several years ago. She was at the 2014 Bakersfield Go Red For Women Luncheon Friday in Bakersfield at the DoubleTree Hotel.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Hundreds of participants in Friday's 2014 Bakersfield Go Red For Women Luncheon at the DoubleTree Hotel mill around the vendors and booths set up to help improve women's health. They had speakers, health experts, a fashion show and more.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

A row of photos of survivors with heart problems was in the lobby of the DoubleTree Hotel during Friday's 2014 Bakersfield Go Red For Women event.

Audrea Jackson was browsing brochures about cardiovascular health at the 10th annual Go Red for Women luncheon and fashion show when a cosmetologist beckoned her to a booth where women were getting makeovers.

Jackson, 42, hopped on a stool and sat still as a coat of lipstick was applied from a new line of cosmetics. She smiled when a mirror was raised to show her the result.

"It's nice," she said before dismounting and wandering over to a table covered with flyers about stroke warning signs.

Jackson was just the type of person Friday's American Heart Association event at the DoubleTree Hotel was designed to reach.

"I've been having chest pains," she said. "So I thought I should probably come and learn something that might prevent me from becoming a victim."

Heart disease annually kills more women than all forms of cancer combined, but for many years it wasn't taken seriously because of the perception that the illness primarily afflicts men.

The Go Red for Women educational campaign, with its now familiar red dress logo, was launched to change that, and it's working, said Cori Kitchen, business development director for the American Heart Association.

Since the national campaign's inception a decade ago, 34 percent more women are aware of the risk of heart disease, she said.

The luncheon in Bakersfield has grown over time, too, Kitchen said. About 420 people registered to attend this year, up from about 100 last year.

Along with the luncheon and speakers, the Go Red for Women offerings included cooking demonstrations, CPR lessons, educational seminars and a shopping and information bazaar with 35 vendors.

The fashion show highlighted clothing from co-sponsor Macy's, modeled by survivors and their relatives, friends and advocates.

The youngest model was a 13-month-old boy who had survived surgery for a congenital heart defect.

Friday's keynote speaker was writer Kristine Carlson, who took over husband Richard Carlson's "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff" book series in 2006 after he died unexpectedly of a pulmonary embolism.

"Something like that changes your life forever," the author said.

The tragedy made her realize that she took a lot for granted.

"It really slows you down from the inside to wake you up to your life," she said.

Another speaker on the roster Friday was Nikki West, one of six women featured on a survivor gallery of photos in the hallway leading to the ballroom.

A basketball player at Cal State Bakersfield, West was swimming in a physical education class in 2009 when she went into sudden cardiac arrest due to undiagnosed cardiomyopathy, or an enlarged heart.

A trainer pulled her out of the pool and performed CPR until paramedics arrived. It was 15 minutes before her heart started beating again, and decreased oxygen to the brain during that period cost her cognitive and physical function that she spent years fighting to restore with therapy.

West's heart condition has derailed her plans to become a nurse and prohibits further participation in organized sports, but she now has a job administering medical records and said she's glad to be alive.

"Just to be up here five years later in a red dress, to be able to tell my story, is just amazing," she said. "I'm grateful every day that I'm able to stand up and breathe."

Outside the ballroom her doctor, cardiologist Jared Salvo, said too many women ignore the early warning signs of heart disease, which can present differently in females.

Just about everyone knows that chest and left arm pain could be a heart attack, Salvo said, but women may also experience less obvious symptoms including fatigue, dizziness, headaches, shortness of breath, swelling of the ankles, nausea or stomach cramps.

Anyone with ongoing or sudden symptoms such as those should take them seriously and get checked out, Salvo said.

"We love false alarms," he said. "We love to tell people that everything's OK. It's a lot better than when you don't come in and find out everything's not OK another way."