Friday, March 4, 2011

SLAP! Get Your Red Dress On.

It's gorgeous to be alive.

Last week I woke from a sound sleep with crushing chest pain.  I awakened my husband and we did things like walk around, stretch, drink some water.  Nothing helped.  I felt like my chest was piled on with cinder blocks.  There was shooting pain up into my neck and shoulder. 

Finally when he asked me, “Should I call 911?” I started crying…because I didn’t know if I was having something serious enough to warrant an emergency squad.

Here is a fact:  more women die of heart disease than men.

This is how many more women than men are dying.

Let me say this again, in bold and in red:


This is hardly news. We hear it all the time. Barbara Walters talked about it, talk shows dedicate hours to it, The Doctors and Dr. OZ talk about it (click those links for specific instances). What a woman thinks is or isn’t a symptom based on how MEN feel heart attacks is pointless.

If you look at the issue from a numbers standpoint, it is a MAN’S symptoms that are atypical, not a woman’s. It is atypical to feel searing pain that radiates down the arm. It is NOT atypical to feel nausea, fatigue, sweating, and pressure. For women, nausea, fatigue, sweating and pressure, sometimes with jaw pain, are NORMAL symptoms of a heart attack.

That graph above reflects to me that the amount of time and energy spent on educating men about their heart health has been received well and internalized because their numbers have consistently dropped. While ours as women have dropped too, we still outnumber men by an awful lot. Why?

When the EMT’s arrived in my home I suddenly felt very embarrassed and apologetic for bothering them. This surprises me now because I don’t typically apologize to the produce man for taking some of the broccoli he’s putting out. I have NEVER apologized for troubling my letter carrier with all that mail. And when I make an appointment with my dentist I rarely apologize for taking up her valuable time when I know I don’t have any cavities.

But I persisted in apologizing for the entire ride to the hospital and began my round of remorse all over again with the nursing staff in the ER.

Women…(and men who love them)…let me make this clear:  CHEST PAIN IS NEVER ANYTHING TO IGNORE and asking an EMT to help you in a moment of pain when something potentially bad is happening is their job! 

It is why they arrive for their shift and it is their hope that you are NOT having a heart attack just as your dentist hopes you have a healthy mouth. While they are there to help when something is terribly wrong, they do NOT need you to be 100% positive of your diagnosis to justify your asking for help. And even though they kept telling me that I couldn’t hear it. I kept on feeling embarrassed and silly for calling.

Now skip ahead to a few hours after I got to the hospital. A woman in her mid-forties came in on a gurney, just like me. In a squad. She had been having chest pain for over 24 hours. Within 30 minutes of arriving at the hospital she was having angioplasty for a major heart attack. Why did she wait so long? Had she arrived at the onset of pain, who knows what might have happened? Perhaps she could have staved off a major cardiac event.

But she DID wait it out. I’m sure she was busy with children, a job, a household…all the normal things we get busy with. So she toughed it out, apologizing for her pesky chest pain. This isn’t something that’s out of place in the ER. Women are dying not of their first heart attack, but the second or third…because the first one goes untreated; too busy or stoic for care.

What happened to me was unrelated to my heart and for that I’m thankful. The ER doctor made very sure to explain to me a million times over that I did nothing wrong in coming to the ER for chest pain, that he was taking seriously my symptoms and being sure to rule out any heart involvement before he sent me home with pleural inflammation. He even told me of a study coming out where, for a large number of women, the ONLY sign of heart attack is….fatigue. Ladies, we need to take this seriously.

Because after all this information, all this education from the doctor:  I WAS STILL APOLOGIZING. And it’s taken me till now to want to punch myself in the face and demand that I respect myself, my body and my body’s warning signs that something might be wrong.

White bronze depiction of an MRI of your beautiful heart.

This is from the American Heart Association’s website:
“…coronary heart disease, which causes heart attack, is the single leading cause of death for American women. Many women believe that cancer is more of a threat, but they're wrong. Nearly twice as many women in the United States die of heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases as from all forms of cancer, including breast cancer.”

Do we all get that? As a society, we should be worried about lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, colon cancer…all the cancers. However, what’s killing more women, wives, sisters, aunts, daughters, and friends:  IS A HEART ATTACK.  Twice as many.

I want to be sure it’s clear:  lump all the cancers together, every one you can imagine. Breast, ovarian, skin, pancreatic, colon, lung, esophageal, brain, bone, liver, kidney (you get where I’m going here right? Any cell in your body can turn to cancer)…all the killers we’re so conditioned to fear. Put them all in a pile, and cardio vascular disease kills a pile twice as high. 

Women, think of yourself and your closest friends. Who of you are statistically doomed without education and awareness? You can't's not as easy as just knowing. We MUST BE AWARE. Breast cancer deaths have gone down because early detection due to awareness is saving lives. Where is our cardiovascular health awareness?

“Annual hospitalizations and mortality for heart failure and total [Cardio Vascular Disease] expenditures are greater for women than men. While mortality from cardiovascular diseases has significantly declined over the past three decades, women have not experienced the same reductions in death and disability as have men. This significant gender-related mortality gap persists due to a combination of low awareness, misconceptions by physicians and women, gender-based physiologic differences, and disparities in care.”

The woman who waited over 24 hours with her chest pain did herself a greater disservice than she can know. Our worries that we're bothering health care professionals, or that we don't have time to see a doctor or go to Urgent Care, need to be stricken forever from our thought processes. We would never recommend to a friend or loved one that they ignore the small voice inside that was telling them, "Something is WRONG!" From this day forward, you  must take an oath to abide by that voice. You must honor it and listen to it, and seek self-care.

We need to take this seriously. And we need to be unapologetic.

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