Heart Disease: Not Just For Men

Two days before her double bypass surgery, my friend said, “I think you should write a column. Tell women they shouldn’t ignore pain.”

Good idea.

She had ignored her pain. It’s heartburn, she said. Or gas. She even changed her diet because the pain seemed to be stronger whenever she ate anything heavy. Soon she was subsisting on brown rice and toast. And still, the pains persisted.

I asked her to see a doctor. I mentioned casually, not really believing it, that it could be her heart. Nope, she said, the pain’s not anywhere near my heart. So I let it go because, well, I didn’t want to be pushy.

Not everyone was as reluctant as I was to get pushy. A guy in her office kept telling her, go to the doctor. His sister had pains, he told her, and she didn’t go until it was too late, and she had a stroke. Just go.

Finally she did go – persuaded more by the growing frequency of the pain than by the nagging of her co-worker, or me. And she learned, to her shock, that she did indeed have a 90 percent blockage in the artery leading into her heart.

Shock. When the diagnosis sank in, she realized she could have died had she waited much longer.

The night before the surgery, I told her she’d be OK. But inside I was quaking with fear. This was big. This was scary. And she, of course, was trying not to think about how scared she was. She wanted to be brave for her kids, for her co-workers and for her friends.

After her surgery it was a relief to finally walk into her room in the Queen’s intensive care unit and see her – groggy, in pain, at times nauseated, a pale wisp of herself … but alive.

I wasn’t sure if it was the right time to visit. Her eyes were closed and she looked so out of it. But when I tentatively touched her hand, her fingers wrapped around mine. That’s when I knew she was glad I was there.

We women tend not to think we could be at risk for heart disease. That’s a man’s illness, we think. And we are wrong.

Don Weisman, communications and marketing director for the American Heart Association, Hawaii Chapter, says cardiovascular disease kills more Hawaii women every year than breast cancer. He says women tend to get heart disease later in life than men – after menopause they quickly catch up. In 2008, 1,392 women died of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Weisman says it’s important for everyone to know that the warning symptoms for women are different than they are for men. Men who have heart attacks are likely to have more typical symptoms such as severe chest pain or a feeling of a heavy weight on their heart. Women’s symptoms are different. Their blood vessels are smaller; pain is not centered on the heart. Or they could feel lightheaded, weak, breathless, nauseated or fatigued. Bottom line: Don’t ignore a symptom. Don’t wait until it’s too late. And, says Weisman, if you suspect you’re having a heart attack, don’t deliver yourself to the hospital, call 911.

The day after her surgery, my friend told me how lucky she felt, and relieved.

I feel lucky, too, to still have her in my life.

The American Heart Association has a new cardiovascular health assessment tool. It can be found at ww.mylifecheck.heart.org. The AHA has defined cardiovascular health based on seven health factors, “Life’s Simple Seven.” The link: https://mylifecheck.heart.org /Multitab.aspx?NavID=3& CultureCode=en-US.

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