By Dave Warner
Carol Nowaczyk remembers the first time she thought she might be having a heart problem.
Nowaczyk, then 57, was working in the yard of her home in Sterling Heights, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, in 1999 when she felt her jaw aching, and then feeling “like an elephant was sitting on my chest.”
Thus began a saga for Nowaczyk that came to involve three open heart surgeries and a total of 15 stents placed in her arterial system over the next few years.
She’s now 68, and is one of the 42 million American women living with cardiovascular disease, according to an organization called WomenHeart.
It’s a disease that tends to be overshadowed in the public mind by various forms of cancer, but heart disease is far and away the biggest killer of American women over the age of 20, with some 432,000 dying from cardiovascular disease each year. Indeed, of that number some 200,000 women each year die from actual heart attacks, five times the number that die from the disease that tends to dominate fund raising and publicity efforts, breast cancer.
Nowaczyk called her mother for advice, after the gardening incident, and during a time when she felt so weary that she could not walk to the mailbox in front of her home without stopping to rest.
She remembers her mother saying, “You know Carol, that doesn’t sound right, why don’t you see your doctor.”
Her doctor did a series of tests, including a stress test on a treadmill and an electrocardiogram. But, she said, neither showed anything definitive.
Nowaczyk then did something that she advises against – she drove herself to a large regional medical center, rather than calling an ambulance, when she began once again having chest pain and being unable to walk any distance.
A cardiologist there did what some refer to as the gold standard of diagnostic tests, a cardio catheterization, during which a tube is placed in a blood vessel in your arm or groin, and with a dye, doctors can then see blockages through an X-ray.
Doctors saw three blockages in her arteries with the test.
“I stayed for open heart surgery,” she said. Between then, in December of 1999, and the following July, she had three open heart surgeries.
Nowaczyk points to what she believes is a critical public awareness issue, that women and even some doctors are not as keenly aware as they might be about women and heart disease.
That belief is buttressed in part by the prestigious National Institutes of Health, which begins a special heart handbook for women with these words:
“When you hear the term ‘heart disease’ what is your first reaction? Like many women, you may think, ‘That’s a man’s disease’ or ‘Not my problem.’ But here is the heart truth: heart disease is the #1 killer of women in the United States. Most women don’t know this. But it is vital that you know it – and know what it means for you.”
The risk becomes greater as you get older.
Before women reach menopause, they have what amounts to a cardiac safety net in their bodies – estrogen. When a woman’s body is producing that hormone, their risk of heart disease is far lower than it is for a man.
But once menopause hits, women lose the magic bullet, and the risk of heart disease leaps dramatically. The stark numbers: one in eight women between 45 and 64 has some form of heart disease, and by the time women reach 65, it’s one in four.
Is it inevitable? Is there nothing you can do? Sure there are steps you can take, even if you can’t do much about your genetics or your age.
You probably know some of them, but like many people, you’re putting it off. Don’t let that elephant sit on your chest, take care of these things now:
- Quit smoking. The chemicals in cigarette smoke damage your blood cells as well as the function and structure of your blood vessels.
- Get your blood pressure under control. You need to aim for 120/80 as a blood pressure reading. High blood pressure exerts force against your artery walls, and that can put you at risk.
- Lose weight if you need to. If you’re overweight, can drive up your blood pressure, your cholesterol and your insulin resistance, all of which are heart risks.
- And you know this one by heart: get up off that chair for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week and get some exercise. It’ll help with some of the points above, like controlling your weight, your cholesterol and your blood pressure.
So how will you know if you have an issue? Medical science has all kinds of tests that can help diagnose heart disease. Nowaczyk had a couple of the,, the EKG, a stress test and the cardiac catheterization procedure.
There is also something called a nuclear scan, where a small dose of radioactive die is injected into your arm, and a camera shows how much of it is taken up in your heart.
Another procedure is called an echocardiography, which measures how much blood is being pumped by your heart.
OK, so your doctor says you may have a problem. Here are some of the tools the physician has in that little black bag that may help you:
- Blood pressure medication to keep those numbers in check.
- Anticoagulants to keep blood clots from forming, or getting any bigger if you already have them.
- Simple aspirin, which is one medication that acts as an antiplatelet to stop clot formation.
- Digitalis to help the heart pump blood.
- Nitrates to relieve chest pain.
- Surgery to re-open or replace a clogged vessel.
Take a lesson from Nowaczyk on all this. She’s leading her life now, after all those surgeries and stents, and is volunteering at the health center that helped her.
But in between, there was lots of anguish.
“I experienced a lot of depression and fear,” she said.
Tell Us What You Think Of This Story. Share your comments below.
SCHEDULE A SCREENING