WHEN DEANNA LINZ had a heart attack last month, no one believed what was happening — not even her. But the 40-year-old Rockville resident knew something was wrong that morning. “I felt pressure in my chest like a pill was stuck in my throat,” she remembers. Then she had trouble lifting her 1-year-old son and grew increasingly anxious. So, Linz dialed 911 and went to the hospital.

“I thought I was being silly, and they thought so, too,” she says. One ER nurse assured her it was just a pulled muscle. But since both of her parents died in their 50s of heart disease, the doctor ordered extra tests to be careful, and sure enough, it was a heart attack. She had a 70 percent blockage, which required immediate surgery.

“People don’t realize that you don’t have to be overweight or diabetic,” she says. “There’s this preconceived notion that there’s a look to heart disease.” And that look is nothing like Linz, an avid exerciser and non-smoker who “lives on chicken breasts and Boca Burgers.”

She’s such a model of healthy living that she’s a star in the beauty queen world, and even competed to be Mrs. International 2009 (hence, the photo above). That pageant just happens to have an alliance with the American Heart Association‘s Go Red for Women campaign, which raises awareness about the fact that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in the U.S.

Linz was already well aware due to her family history. Her mother, who was just a size 6 when she passed away, also had trouble getting people to take her medical problems seriously. “They tried to put her on antidepressants,” Linz says. Her father was “the healthy one” until he dropped dead after ignoring the signs of a heart attack.

There were lessons in those experiences for Linz. She’s developed behaviors very different from that of her mother — a smoker from the South who ate her food deep-fried — and kept on top of her numbers with frequent doctor visits.

It wasn’t enough to keep her immune to heart disease, but her vigilance promises to keep her ticker going despite it. Moving forward, she’s happy to skip the hamburgers, walk as much as possible and take a handful of drugs every morning if it means she can spend more time with her husband and son.

And if Linz ever thinks something is amiss, she’s not going to feel silly asking for help. “This has made me aware that life is short and precious, and you need to be an advocate for yourself,” she says. “Nobody knows you better than you.”

» Ticker Time: Valentine’s Day is over, but it’s still American Heart Month. And the American Heart Association is hoping you mark the occasion by visiting Heart.org/mylifecheck. The site walks you through a series of questions organized around “the simple seven,” the factors that affect heart health: get active, control cholesterol, eat better, manage blood pressure, lose weight, reduce blood sugar and stop smoking. There’s another online checkup available at Goredforwomen.com.

Photo courtesy Deanna Linz