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Ten questions and answers with a women's heart health advocate.

1. What was your life like before you started experiencing symptoms of heart disease?

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Before I was diagnosed with heart disease I would classify myself as an unhealthy thin person. I did not eat a proper diet. I am a type A personality and used that to accomplish anything I set out to do. I also set very high limits for myself. I handled stress one way: inappropriately. I saw doctors on a regular basis during my adult life, my family heart health history or my lifestyle combined with family heart history was never discussed as a concern. Not one single time before being diagnosed with heart disease did I ever consider it a possibility in my own life, even though my father had a massive coronary at age 36. If heart disease had been introduced into the equation of my physical and mental health, I believe I would not have had premature heart disease as early as I did. Family history is a known risk factor – knowledge is power and I had no knowledge or even an inkling that women were candidates for heart disease.

2. Tell us a little about the days and weeks before your diagnosis. What did you experience?

For about a month I had unusual fatigue. Three days before I went to the emergency room, I went to my doctor because my right hand had been numb for about a month. My doctor gave me a referral to an orthopedist, but he also suggested having an electrocardiogram (EKG) before I left his office. An EKG takes longer to set up than to actually perform, so by the time I buttoned my shirt I heard the nurse tell the doctor the results were abnormal. He scheduled two additional heart tests: a 24-hour Holter monitor and an echocardiography.
Upon hearing that my EKG was abnormal, I didn’t jump with joy, but I figured it was a result of my having rushed there from work without eating breakfast or lunch. No big deal. I told the nurse that I’d be back on Friday to get hooked up to the 24-hour Holter monitor. That way I could wear it over the weekend in the privacy of my own home. Returning to work with what looks like a transistor radio attached to a fanny pack just didn’t work for me.
The next day I stayed home from work. I couldn’t say exactly why—just that I felt extra sensitive and couldn’t imagine being around a lot of people. The same thing happened on Friday—highly unusual for me.
That night I told my husband very casually that I thought I should go to the hospital. At the time it was my back that hurt the most.
The standard blood tests were taken, I had an EKG, and we waited. The treating ER doctor and attending nurse seemed concerned. The standard blood tests they take at such times as this show only if you’ve had a heart attack, not (and this is important) if the heart attack is actually in progress. About an hour or so later, the blood tests showed that I had not had a heart attack. We tried to relax. As a precaution, they kept me overnight in the hospital and arranged for a cardiologist to see me the next day, Saturday. That morning he visited my room, and I was told, “You’re young and a woman. I think it’s probably acid reflux, and women have abnormal EKG’s. Let’s schedule a stress/echo test this week. Since it’s the weekend, you’ll feel better at home.”

3. How were you finally diagnosed?

A day later I returned to the emergency room. My book goes into great detail, but reluctantly the attending emergency room doctor admitted me for further testing. An Exercise Stress Echocardiography test (often known as the stress echo test) or the Exercise Stress with Nuclear Imaging was scheduled for the next morning. There was some problem detected. Two days later still in the hospital I was scheduled for an angiography. The cardiologist found that my left descending artery was 75 percent blocked. I had a medicated stent placed in that artery to keep it open.

4. How did being a woman affect your diagnosis and hospital experience?

I experienced my heart event in June 2003. That being the first year that women’s heart disease was getting some attention by national health organizations. But, it was too early for people to understand that someone like me could have heart disease. My hospital experience and diagnosis were lonely, sad, confusing and lacking compassion from the hospital staff, doctors or the woman I roomed with for a short time. I thought I was the only woman anywhere that had heart disease. Not only was I newly diagnosed with heart disease, I was heartbroken.

5. What lifestyle changes did you have to make right away to improve your health?

I was sent to cardio rehab. There I felt even more alone. It was filled with mostly overweight 60+ aged men. Most were also diabetic and not at all willing to make lifestyle changes. I was given many prescriptions to take and also told about my new eating regime. Before I basically ate very little and when I did eat it was protein. Certainly nothing close to the healthy eating habits they were teaching in cardio rehab, which entailed watching my salt intake, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, limited protein and when I did have protein it should be lean cuts of beef, but mostly chicken and fish. I immediately tried to implement everything I learned. I read all the labels on the food I was buying. I tried not to buy anything that contained cholesterol or too much added sodium. Honestly it was mentally coping with change that was the biggest battle. There was no class on that. The statins I took got my blood cholesterol levels at an outstanding low level, which made me think it wasn’t about diet as much as taking my pills. True change did not come right away.

6. Have you changed since your diagnosis?

I have changed drastically since my diagnosis. First I could not believe that I was not alone. That heart disease was the number one killer of women. I almost went into cardiac arrest when I learned that more women than men had died of heart disease for over the past twenty years. It made me furious that I had been so aware of breast cancer and not once made aware of women’s number one killer. There wasn’t even a ribbon for women’s heart disease.
That led to a passion that took over my being. I wanted to live and breathe to tell other women about how they could control or prevent heart disease. In doing that I put my passion above my own health, something I have been guilty of my whole life. As I was speaking and writing about women’s heart disease, I was in denial of my own heart disease. I began to gain weight, blaming it on a lot of factors – some justifiable – but charging ahead without truly making the necessary life changes I needed to be heart healthy.
I sought counsel on how to deal properly with my denial. With the depression that comes along with knowing I’ll have heart disease the rest of my life. I have adopted a Mediterranean diet. Thankfully my husband has also.
When I was diagnosed with heart disease in June 2003 my oldest daughter had been married three months. I’m thrilled to say that my two daughters are married, our fourth grandchild is on the way, and my youngest daughter is engaged. How much I would have missed if I had not gone back to the emergency room the next day!

7. What do you think women don’t know about heart disease? What should they know?

I think women don’t know that heart disease is a now problem. Later might be too late. Heart disease can become chronic because often we don’t know when trouble has been developing, often over many years. The condition known as atherosclerosis causes our arteries to harden as cholesterol, fat, and other substances build up in the artery walls; blockage can result in a heart attack. If not “fixed” by surgery or medical interventions (such as bypass, angioplasty, or medication), the condition will worsen, which can lead to disability or death. Heart disease can be prevented or controlled. Treatment includes lifestyle changes and, if needed, medication.
We women need to pay attention to our bodies. If I had not listened to my body and returned to the ER, I would not be writing and speaking about heart disease today. Only you know if you are experiencing something unique to your normal health patterns. Listen to what your body is telling you.
Know the risk factors. Know your own cholesterol levels. Don’t rely on someone else to simply tell you everything is fine. There are risk factors we can do something about and some we can’t. Family history, being post-menopausal, or over 55 years of age we cannot change. So change the ones we can! Educate yourself. The information is out there. Women have no excuse not to be aware of their number one killer, heart disease.

8. What is one piece of advice you’d give women regarding their health?

Trust your intuition – only you know your own body, so listen to it!

9. Tell us why you don’t consider yourself a “heart disease survivor.”

In reality, I don’t feel like a survivor of heart disease because my heart disease doesn’t go away. But I am learning to thrive with heart disease. I’m thankful to wake up every morning, and every day I try to make the right choices.

10. What are you doing now to share your story and promote heart disease awareness?

I am concentrating on sharing my story on an individual basis right now. It’s shocking to me how many women still are not knowledgeable about heart disease and how it affects them personally. I’ve written two books on women’s heart disease. And, I know the women I have met at my seminars over the past five years have been able to put a face to heart disease after hearing my story. But, the best thing I can do to promote heart disease awareness at this point is stay alive. My personal goals right now are to eat a heart healthy diet and make sure I plan times for exercise and relaxation. I also focus on learning how to deal with stress—which I believe will take a lifetime. I enjoy my beautiful family. And when given the opportunity to speak, I talk about the struggle it has been to live with heart disease. Finally I tell women, one-on-one or in a seminar setting, trust yourself and love yourself.

With Valentine's Day in a few days, heart stickers and decorations everywhere, it's time to ask yourself how is your heart doing? To read more on how you can control or prevent heart disease pick up Lois Trader's Book "SURVIVING" today.

Preventative Screenings can help you prevent an event before it happens. Why wouldn't you want to know what's going on inside your body? I can't think of reason a person wouldn't want to avoid some health concern ahead of time. If you agree schedule your Life Line Screening today.

Lois Trader