The American Heart Association this month is drawing attention to heart disease – particularly in women. Nearly eight million women in the U.S. live with the disease, but few believe it’s their greatest threat. That shouldn’t include a nurse with the title of E-R Cardiac-Stroke Coordinator, but in a KERA Health Checkup, Karen Yates of Methodist Mansfield Medical Center told Sam Baker she learned her lesson the hard way.
Karen Yates: Of course realizing women have atypical symptoms of heart disease, I really kind of ignored some things I should have paid attention to and finally decided to listen to my body and checked in with the emergency department. Because I had a little elevation in one of the blood tests that they do, it does classify me as somebody who’s had a heart attack. Thankfully, very minor. And I now see a cardiologist. I had a cardiac catheterization. I’m on medications. So, no damage to heart muscle, no blockage.
Sam: So even when we think of a heart attack, there are different degrees or levels of it?
Karen: There are different types of heart attack. The worst type of heart attack is when there is complete blockage in a coronary artery. So if you think about cholesterol and how it would form plaque in arteries, it can break loose and develop to the extent that it occludes or almost occludes one of the arteries in your heart. And so when that happens, you have blood flow that is not getting through to the rest of the heart muscle.
Sam: And then it can be, I don’t know, should I use the word…
Karen: I know, do you say mild? They found that a couple of my arteries were anatomically small. And so I either had a little piece of clot, potentially, it wasn’t there when they went in and did the heart catheterization. So I either a small piece of clot that had resolved b the time they took me in or I could have had a spasm in one of the arteries.
Sam: But you’re saying the symptoms for woman can be different than for men?
Karen: The symptoms are different for women. You know men tend to have the classic – you know, what people think of when they think of a heart attack: the clutching chest pain, the pressure in the chest, pressure in the arm. Women can certainly have that as well, but many times with women, for true what happened with myself, it’s more like fatigue. Maybe more like not sleeping well at night. Maybe some discomfort in the cheat, but not what you would call chest pain.
Sam: You could think that could be almost anything.
Karen: Exactly, exactly. And you know many times it falls during the menopausal years. Menopause can cause palpitations; it can cause you not to be able to sleep; it can cause you lots of things that can go along with heart disease. You know, so think many women don’t want to cry wolf, have probably already been to their physician with some of the menopause things that are going on. Or, in some cases, maybe have and have been misdiagnosed.
Sam: But also there is the danger that you could ignore it?
Karen: You know I had been ignoring some of the subtle things. But then really when I started to notice something in my arm, that my left arm didn’t feel right, that’s when I knew.
Sam: So to make people more aware, symptoms they should pay attention to when they occur.
Karen: I think, mostly, pay attention. I think, deep down, we know when something’s not right. Denial’s very, very powerful. But if you’re more tired than you think should be, if you’re have anything in your chest or your abdomen that doesn’t feel right, if you feel like your having palpitations and you haven’t seen a physician for it.
Sam: When a heart attack does occur, what should you do?
Karen: Call 911. If you can’t, for whatever reason, call 911 or choose not to, at least have someone drive you. Someone that tries to drive them self, particularly if they have complete blockage in the heart, that’s an emergency. They can lose consciousness or go into cardiac arrest at any time.
Sam: Who is most at risk for a heart attack or heart disease?
Karen: Diabetics, people with high blood pressure, people with high cholesterol, people that are overweight, sedentary lifestyle, all of those things are manageable. We can control those. The one thing we can’t control is our family history. You can have people who do all the right things: they exercise, they eat the right way, they manage their weight, their cholesterol’s normal, but they have strong family history. Meaning somebody relatively close to them: parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, have had heart disease and, obviously, you can’t change that.
Sam: In which case, you do what? You monitor more closely?
Karen: Well, just being aware of it. And, clearly, if you have that strong family history, then making sure your blood pressure is normal, that your cholesterol’s normal, you’re eating right, that you’re exercising, that you don’t smoke – you know, all of those. Because we see people in my facility, young people in their 30s and early 40s, who do everything right and have big heart attacks.
Karen Yates is with Methodist Mansfield Medical Center.
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