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Gender Does Matter in Heart Disease

By Carolyn Thomas

I'm a 58-year old woman who works as a communications co-ordinator for a hospice. Last spring, I was sent home from the emergency room (ER) with a diagnosis of acid reflux – despite presenting with textbook heart-attack symptoms like crushing chest pain, pain radiating down my left arm, sweating and nausea. All cardiac tests (blood, EKG, treadmill stress test) came back normal. I left the ER after five hours feeling very embarrassed, and also feeling guilty because I'd just wasted five hours of valuable staff time while truly sick people were lined up out in the waiting room – but I also felt relieved. I'd much rather have indigestion than heart disease!

For the next two weeks, I continued to suffer increasingly severe attacks like the first. But I certainly wasn't about to go back to the ER because, after all, a man with the letters MD after his name had told me quite clearly that this was NOT my heart. For those two weeks, I popped antacids like candy, and was terribly shocked by how debilitating this acid reflux seemed!

After a trip to Ottawa to help celebrate my mother's 80th birthday, I knew I was in very serious trouble on the flight home. By now, these episodes of crippling pain were hitting me back to back. At no point did I feel the need to tell the flight attendants about my obvious distress - and I certainly did not want to be one of those passengers they have to turn the plane around for because of a medical emergency! All I could think of was: ‘I just want to go home!’ By the time I finally did make it home to Victoria, I'd already decided to go back to Emergency – to get some help with the acid reflux!

But my second trip to the ER was entirely different than two weeks earlier. This time, a cardiologist was called in immediately. He checked my blood and EKG results, and told me that he could tell from my preliminary tests that I had ‘significant heart disease.’ I was taken immediately from ER to the operating room, where I had an emergency angioplasty and a shiny new stainless steel stent implanted in my left anterior descending coronary artery, which was 99 per cent blocked.

I was stunned. How could I have ‘significant heart disease’ when two weeks earlier this very hospital had sent me home with a pat on the head and a misdiagnosis?

Several months later, I attended the Science & Leadership Symposium, held by WomenHeart: The National Coalition of Women with Heart Disease, in collaboration with Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. There I was shocked to learn that:

  • Heart disease is the #1 killer of women.
  • Heart disease kills more women than men.
  • Heart disease kills six times more women than breast cancer – in fact, heart disease kills more women than all types of cancer combined.
  • Women are under-diagnosed and under-treated compared to male heart patients, and our outcomes are twice as deadly as men's.

Part cardiology training and part community activism boot camp, the Symposium's goal is to help educate women about their most dangerous health threat – all from the unique grassroots perspective of trained heart attack survivors who volunteer back in our hometowns as community educators.  

My blog illustrates some of the types of presentations I've been doing since my training, including my ‘Pinot & Prevention’ parties.

The need for things to improve for women was illustrated at one of my ‘Pinot & Prevention’ parties this month, when a woman attending told me of her visit to the ER for an unrelated health issue. She happened to overhear the doctor telling the (male!) patient in the next cubicle: ‘Your blood tests have all come back normal, and your EKG is normal, but we're going to keep you here for observation just to make sure it's not your heart!’

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