HEALTH AND WELLNESS: Women often experience more subtle symptoms than men before heart attackCori Axvig, 51, had a heart attack.
Recovering from a hysterectomy, Axvig got out of her hospital bed to stretch her legs and fell to the floor in pain. “I felt like something was crushing me,” she said. “That morning I told the nurse I had a little heartburn, but I’d had heartburn for six months. I didn’t connect the two.”
By: By Kristin Garaas-Johnson, Grand Forks Herald
Recovering from a hysterectomy, Cori Axvig got out of her hospital bed to stretch her legs and fell to the floor in pain.
“I felt like something was crushing me,” she said. “That morning I told the nurse I had a little heartburn, but I’d had heartburn for six months. I didn’t connect the two.”
Axvig, 51, had a heart attack.
“I was in agony. The doctor who did my surgery raced down to my room and told them, ‘Give her a cocktail.’ My eyes were closed but I could see him there, at my side. I could hear everything.
“They told him, ‘We did, but it’s not working.’ ”
The Altru Health System medical staff stabilized her, but she had a second attack less than six hours later.
“After that they decided to run some tests and put in some stents,” Axvig said. “Sometime later in the day I had another heart attack. I had three heart attacks in less than 12 hours.”
After her third heart attack, the medical staff inserted a third stent into an artery near her heart. The stent improved her heart’s blood flow by forcing open about 7 inches that had collapsed.
There are certain characteristics that often predetermine whether someone is at risk of heart disease, which can lead to cardiac arrest, said Dr. Abdel Ahmed, Altru Health System, Grand Forks, cardiologist.
“People who have a family history, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol or a sedentary lifestyle are at risk,” he said.
Though people who have a parent or a sibling who died from heart disease before the age of 55 are at a greater risk, people who do not meet these criteria may still be at risk, he noted.
Meanwhile, many people still view heart disease as a concern for men, he said.
“More women will die of heart disease this year than men,” Ahmed said. “A 2005 survey found that 8 percent of primary care physicians knew that heart disease is the leading cause of death in women and 17 percent of cardiologists knew this.”
Because members of the medical community may not be current in their knowledge of the disease, patients may suffer, Ahmed said.
“A recent study was just published that shows there is a delay in care for females by (emergency medical services). They do not receive the care they need, such as defibrillators, fast enough,” he said.
“Up until 2008, certain medications weren’t given to women. There is a deep rooted misconception that symptoms women are experiencing are from anxiety or indigestion.”
While traditional symptoms of a heart attack include chest pain that radiates down the left arm and shortness of breath, women often experience more subtle symptoms, including jaw pain, fatigue, jitters or anxiety.
“Since 1908, heart disease is the leading cause of death in women,” Ahmed noted.
The heart of the matter
Meanwhile, Axvig doesn’t know why she developed heart disease.
“I’m not overweight. My diet wasn’t good — I like sugar — but my cholesterol was good. I don’t have high blood pressure,” Axvig said. “I like to walk and exercise. I never felt sick.”
Axvig doesn’t smoke either, but she believes daily stress and her poor diet contributed to her condition.
“We were farm kids. We ate meat and potatoes every day of our life,” she said. “The first month or two afterward I bought decaf coffee and fruit. I’m working on it.”
A diet rich in red meat and fatty foods can increase a person’s risk for developing heart disease, Ahmed noted.
During the last year, Axvig has learned how to manage her condition and to recognize the symptoms.
“I’m walking proof of the miracles of medicine,” Axvig said. “You think a heart attack won’t happen at my age with my body type. My only suggestion to people is to get those check ups. Go beyond checking your cholesterol.”
“If you think you’re having heart trouble, speak out,” Ahmed said. “Ask questions, don’t be shy and don’t be afraid to get a second opinion.”
February is heart health awareness month. To learn more, speak to your health care provider and visit the American Heart Association Web site at www.americanheart.org.
Garaas-Johnson writes for special features sections. Reach her at (701) 780-1229; (800) 477-6572, ext. 229; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.