By Doreen Marion Gee –
New scientific knowledge reveals that the female heart may beat to a different drummer. A woman’s cardiovascular system is different from its male counterpart in important ways, especially when it malfunctions. New innovative diagnostic and treatment procedures are essential to meet the unique needs of female cardiac patients. Fortunately, state-of-the-art medical treatment plus many excellent resources and programs are helping women in our community as they cope with cardiac disease. The remarkable story of a local survivor puts a human face on the trauma of having a heart attack and the challenging road to recovery.
It was nothing like the Hollywood image of a man grasping his chest as he collapses onto the floor. In fact, Carolyn Thomas’ jarring experience of having a heart attack bore no resemblance to the usual media images. In 2008, the 58-year-old was enjoying her morning walk in sunny Oak Bay, Victoria. Suddenly she felt nauseous, started sweating profusely, and felt like a “heavy Toyota was parked on my chest.” She was most alarmed by the unusual pain racing through her left arm. However, the symptoms were gone after 15 minutes and her electrocardiogram at the Royal Jubilee Hospital came back “normal.” Prior to the incident, she’d felt fit and healthy, with no indication of any problem.
When she was correctly diagnosed, Carolyn learned that she had experienced a “Slow Onset Heart Attack” on that fateful stroll. But how could she have known? There was nothing typical about her experience. During the next few weeks, all of her previous symptoms came back with a vengeance and at one point, “I could not walk more than five steps!” During her final visit to the emergency department, the attending cardiologist told Carolyn that she had “significant heart disease.” Emergency surgery was performed. Then, months later, she received a secondary diagnosis of coronary microvascular disease. The former public relations professional was surprised to find out that heart disease is always chronic and progressive.
The female cardiovascular system has unique aspects to its structure and function. Women’s hearts and coronary arteries are smaller than those of men. There are differences in the way atherosclerotic plaque, a major cause of coronary heart disease, builds up in female blood vessels. According to Carolyn’s blog: “In 10% of women’s heart attacks, there is no form of chest pain at all.” The Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation highlights an urgent need to address the singular experience of female heart patients: “The number one cause of premature death in women in Canada is heart disease and stroke. 53 percent of women who experience heart attack symptoms have them go unrecognized.” Heart attacks are fatal for more women than men. The Foundation believes that inequities in scientific inquiry underlie the problem: “Two-thirds of all heart disease and stroke clinical research focuses on men. Women are under-researched and over dying.”
Women’s heart health is uniquely impacted by pregnancy, menopause and hormonal changes throughout their lives. A pregnancy complication called preeclampsia, from decades earlier, was strongly linked to Carolyn’s 2008 heart attack. Female patients can experience different types of heart disease than men, requiring novel approaches to diagnosis and treatment. Carolyn’s blog discusses research about “The type of heart failure most commonly seen in women – heart failure with preserved ejection fraction – caused by problems when the heart relaxes between beats, leading to elevated blood pressure that can cause the heart to stiffen.”
Carolyn Thomas is on a compassionate mission to educate women worldwide about the female experience of coronary heart disease and to help them enjoy long and healthy lives. Her popular blog, “Heart Sisters” (https://myheartsisters.org), is an internet sensation. In recognition of her contribution to global knowledge, she was awarded a web-based badge of honour: “Top 10 Online Influencers: Making a Difference in the Fight Against Heart Disease.” The heart attack survivor was invited to speak at the Mayo Clinic and prestigious Johns Hopkins University published her book, A Woman’s Guide to Living With Heart Disease in 2017.
Female cardiac patients on the south Island can literally ‘take heart’ in the fact that many cutting-edge programs are being pioneered here. The first of its kind in Canada, the WomenHeart Support Group program takes place at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. Island Heart-to-Heart is a seven-week educational program for recently diagnosed heart patients and their family members. RJH also houses the regional cardiac unit where doctors utilize the best knowledge and technology to help patients reclaim their lives.
“Don’t be a good girl!” says Carolyn. Her strongest advice to women experiencing heart disease is to take charge of their own health: “You know your body and you know when something is just not right. Keep going back to your doctor to get the answers you need.”
Sources and information: https://myheartsisters.org; www.heartandstroke.ca/women; https://www.islandhealth.ca/our-services/heart-health-services/cardiac-risk-reduction-rehabilitation-program-heart-health.