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All women face high risk of heart disease

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - A woman dies of heart disease about every minute in the United States. Only 13 percent of women view it as a threat. Stephanie Hammar-Samuels sure didn't. On a hike up Mount Herman in fall 2005, she was the one nagging h...

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - A woman dies of heart disease about every minute in the United States. Only 13 percent of women view it as a threat.

Stephanie Hammar-Samuels sure didn't. On a hike up Mount Herman in fall 2005, she was the one nagging her buddies to go faster.

The next morning, she woke up nauseated.

She assumed she'd come down with the flu, but the urge to vomit persisted for more than a week and was sometimes so strong she had to pull her car to the side of the road. She thought she might be pregnant, but the home test came back negative. Then she noticed she was short of breath walking up a flight of stairs.

Hammar-Samuels was 39 and healthy; a nonsmoker with no history of heart problems in her family. But coronary heart disease, the No. 1 killer of women older than 25, doesn't discriminate.


That's what the American Heart Association wants women to know. It's trying to get women - especially those who have deemed heart disease a fat old man's problem - to pay attention to their tickers. One in 2.6 female deaths in the U.S. are from cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association.

"What most women don't know is they will most likely die of heart disease," said Dr. Kimberly Dulaney, a cardiologist at Pikes Peak Cardiology in the Springs.

The American Heart Association is "targeting women to take care of themselves. We understand that you're busy, we understand that you're caretakers . . . but don't forget about your own health," said Katie Farlow. "It doesn't matter if you're in great shape or not, you still need to be getting checked."

Because it can happen to anyone. Even to someone who did everything right.

Even someone who practices yoga a few times a week, plays volleyball and stocks her kitchen with fresh veggies, whole grains and soy milk. Hammar-Samuels was diagnosed with coronary artery disease in October 2005.

She was scared, but mostly furious.

"I exercise, I eat healthy," she said. "I went all these years living a healthy lifestyle, thinking everything was fine."

In reality, her left anterior descending artery was 99 percent blocked. The LAD artery is responsible for supplying the heart's left ventricle, which pumps blood to the rest of the body. Its occlusion often leads to death, earning the artery the nickname "widow maker."


Hammar-Samuels displayed the symptoms of a heart problem - shortness of breath, nausea - but went undiagnosed for two weeks while her doctors ruled out other possibilities such as acid reflux, thyroid problems and pregnancy. One doctor diagnosed her with an anxiety disorder and prescribed medication. No one mentioned her heart. She started to think she was a hypochondriac. She'd call her best friend Betsy Cole five times a day to reassure herself she wasn't crazy.

"She just doesn't make up stuff like that," said Cole, who once got a call from Hammar-Samuels as she was sitting on the sidewalk, exhausted from walking her dogs. "It really started to bother me because it was associated with activity."

Cole, a nurse, pushed Hammar-Samuels to take a stress test and pulled a few strings to get her into a friend's cardiology office. During the second part of a treadmill test, Hammar-Samuels' blood pressure dropped and she collapsed. After a coronary catheterization, a procedure that examines the heart's arteries with a catheter, a stent was inserted into her blocked LAD artery to open blood flow.

"I wouldn't have guessed my heart, and she did," Hammar-Samuels said. "She really validated that I was not crazy. If it wasn't for her, I don't know what would have happened."

Two days later, her nausea returned. Three more stents were placed in two smaller arteries in Hammar-Samuels' heart. Several months later, a fifth stent was inserted to repair one that was failing. The relapses keep her on edge. If she's nauseated, she starts to panic. If she's tired, she worries it's her heart. She takes a handful of vitamins and cholesterol medications, and stays militant about her diet. She shops at health-food stores, never sets foot in fast-food restaurants and doesn't eat red meat.

She's still a little scared, but she's not angry anymore. She's more thankful - for a good friend, and good instincts.

"Women have really good instincts, but we cover them up," said Hammar-Samuels, now 41. "We just are more apt to think, 'Oh, why can't I do more?'"

It's a common complaint among busy women, who tend to put themselves low on the priority list in lieu of balancing relationships, careers and kids, said Lauve Metcalfe, associate director for the Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at the University of Arizona.


"We need to start working smarter and not harder," said Metcalfe, a scheduled speaker at the "Go Red for Women"luncheon. "If you're not in tip-top shape to handle life, how are you going to expect to do the things that you need to do?"

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