March 26, 2004

Learning heart disease risk factors key for women

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James E. “Pete” Powell, M.D., was recently named medical director of VMG’s Williamson County division. Photo by Dana Johnson

Learning heart disease risk factors key for women

Although Kim Orange was a seemingly healthy, active 39-year old, she nearly died of a heart attack two years ago after being told by doctors she was more than likely suffering from a muscle spasm.

She's now encouraging other women to learn if they are at risk for heart disease and become advocates in their own health.

“I remember telling my gynecologist during my yearly visit that I was really tired, irritable and real emotional,” Orange said. “I am not normally any of these things. He said it was just my age, I was a mom, I worked and I was stressed.

“Two weeks later, I got real upset over something, went home and cried. Later, I felt extreme pressure in my chest. I started having tunnel vision. I called my husband to tell him something was really wrong with me. Then I passed out. He called 911.”

She recalls feeling lethargic, having trouble breathing and sweating profusely. But the medical team in the emergency room saw a young, fit woman. Thankfully they kept her overnight for observation. Hours later, a massive heart attack was caused by 100 percent blockage in her main left coronary artery and the two others were 99 percent blocked. She suffered substantial heart damage caused from the lack of blood flow to her heart, and underwent a triple bypass.

Orange discovered her heart disease was hereditary with a strong family history of the disease, and for years her cholesterol was elevated.

“But I exercised,” she said. “I watched what I ate. I had some bad eating habits, but I had better habits than most. During my life I had smoked, but not at this time.” Orange takes things a lot easier now and doesn’t stress about the events in her life as much.

Her diet is very restrictive — limiting fats, cholesterol, sugar and carbohydrates. Although Orange doesn’t force her diet on her family, she has taught them how to make healthier choices. She also is an advocate for heart healthy living and speaks to many civic groups in an effort to educate and raise awareness.

“Women don’t realize that they are at risk. You’re just so busy. You have kids and you’re working. It’s hard to focus on yourself with so many other things to focus on. Women need to take a better look at themselves and do better by themselves so they’ll be around later on.”

That same message is evident in Amber Morrell’s story. Morrell, 23, received a heart transplant at age 21. Her condition, cardiomyopathy, was unknown to her. It wasn’t until complications during gallbladder surgery that doctors became aware of her enlarged heart. “In the middle of my surgery my blood pressure dropped really low and they about lost me,” Morrell recalled.

“That’s how they figured out I had a heart problem. I was listed for transplant and after 21 days received a new heart. “When I look back, I should’ve known. I wasn’t paying attention to my body.”

Morrell admitted that had she been more aware of her own body perhaps her heart transplant could have been avoided. She said she didn’t pay attention to the warning signs: the difficulty walking next door and shortness of breath.

“I was 21 years old. I didn’t think anything could be wrong with my heart.” Now nearly two years post- transplant, Morrell’s life has completely changed. She also watches her diet and exercise habits, but works in a few extra duties including volunteering with donor services and taking the time to speak to people about listening to their bodies.

“It’s something no one thinks about until they are touched by the situation,” she said. “None of my family ever considered it until it happened to me.

“I also enjoy talking to people about taking care of themselves. They really have to learn to pay attention to their bodies. I was in such bad shape by the time they found (my heart problem), nothing could be done for me but transplant.”

Stacy Davis, M.D., director of the Women's Heart Center at Vanderbilt, says these women’s stories bring to light a common theme.

Women need to be aware of the risk factors for heart disease in order to take an active role in their health care. It’s important that they recognize the signs and symptoms of heart disease, which may be different in women than men. If they identify these signs, they need to seek attention.

These are messages she will share with the nearly 400 women expected to attend the Ann F. Eisenstein Women’s Cardiovascular Symposium on Monday, April 12 at the Cool Springs Marriott.

Orange’s symptoms were not unusual for women heart attack patients, while Morrell’s invincible attitude is characteristic of youth, she said.

“Women don’t always have chest discomfort so heart disease can be tricky to diagnose, especially if there’s no previous history,” Davis said. “If you are young, a doctor is more likely to diagnose another illness.

The classic signs of a heart attack are chest discomfort and shortness of breath. The more subtle signs include neck or jaw tightness, arm tingling or numbness, nausea and fatigue. Open communication with your physician is important, according to Davis.

It’s acceptable to challenge them by asking questions. Let them know you are worried. And, if you don’t get the response from a physician that you feel is appropriate, then seek out another program, she said.

“We need to do just as good of a job with heart disease recognition as cancer advocates have done with breast cancer awareness,” Davis said. “The message is to recognize heart disease as a major health issue. There is something that you can do to prevent heart disease. We are partners with our physicians in treatment.”

For more information about the Eisenstein Women’s Cardiovascular Symposium and to register for the event, call 936-2239.