Women with cardiac problems find support and education in WomenHeart

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter



Signs of a heart attack

Not every person suffering a heart attack experiences crushing chest pain. WomenHeart urges women to seek medical care if they experience these other heart attack warning signs:

• Discomfort, tightness, uncomfortable pressure, fullness or squeezing in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or that comes and goes.

• Pressure or pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck, upper back, jaw, or arms.

• Dizziness or nausea.

• Clammy sweats, heart flutters or paleness.

• Unexplained feelings of anxiety, fatigue or weakness — especially with exertion.

• Stomach or abdominal pain.

• Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.

Even health care providers may dismiss these symptoms, so WomenHeart urges women to insist on an EKG or enzyme blood test to find out if they are having a heart attack.

If you go

• What: WomenHeart support group.

• When: 7 p.m. Thursday (and the third Thursday of every month).

• Where: Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, 2211 N.E. 139th St., Third Floor, Conference Room B.

• Information: Online at www.WomenHeart.org; or contact B.J. Babcock at 360-887-4694 or bbabcock52@gmail....

When B.J. Babcock underwent surgery to replace a faulty heart valve, she asked her doctors if there was another woman with a similar problem she could contact.

“Both the surgeon and cardiologist said ‘no,’” recalled Babcock, a 58-year-old Ridgefield resident. “I needed companionship from someone who had been through the healing process.”

She had been searching for that sort of support ever since her 1998 surgery, and only recently found it through WomenHeart.

The national group, founded by women heart attack survivors, trains 50 to 70 women each year at a symposium at the Mayo Clinic. They then return home equipped to lead support groups and educate their communities about women’s heart health.

Babcock attended the training in 2009, and then launched a support group that has met monthly at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center since May.

“There’s something very special and magical about women helping other women,” Babcock said. “We begin to heal by helping others.”

Most of the women who attend the local support group are there because they’ve had heart attacks or surgery. But they hope to reach other women before their heart disease progresses that far. Many women don’t believe they are at risk of developing heart trouble, even though it kills one in four women.

“We need to be as concerned as the males,” said Jimmie Thomas, a 66-year-old Vancouver resident who had a stent inserted after her heart attack in October.

Perhaps even more concerned.

“Women are more likely to die once they develop heart disease compared to men. It used to be the other way around,” said Dr. C. Noel Bairey Merz, director of the Women’s Heart Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Heart disease often manifests itself differently in women than in men. Treatment strategies focus on eliminating blockages through bypass surgery, angioplasty or stents — procedures that have been shown to work in men. Yet women who’ve had heart attacks are more likely to have open arteries and no critical blockages, Merz said. That’s because their disease is more likely to develop as narrowing in the heart’s smallest coronary arteries.

“We do not know everything we need to know,” Merz said. “We need another 25 to 30 years to catch up with men.”

Perhaps that’s why denial among women at risk remains so powerful. Leslea Steffel-Dennis, a 76-year-old Vancouver resident, thought she had done everything right. She hadn’t eaten red meat for years. When she experienced chest pains, warmth in her leg and tingling in her jaw, she explained away the symptoms by telling herself, “I do things right, there’s no genetics, blah blah blah,” she said.

Her doctor told her otherwise. Her cholesterol was high. In September, her doctor performed an angiogram, found a blockage in a coronary artery, and inserted a stent to prop it open.

“I had to take prescription drugs for the first time,” Steffel-Dennis said, her voice still tinged with disbelief. “What I know now is that I was at risk, and I didn’t have the information to acknowledge it.”

Steffel-Dennis joined the local WomenHeart support group after she found a meeting notice at her cardiac rehab clinic at Legacy Salmon Creek, where she exercises under the supervision of medical professionals to improve the condition of her heart.

“I felt that my life had changed and I needed some support to understand it,” Steffel-Dennis said.

“You go through things that people don’t realize,” Thomas added. She has suffered anxiety, which is common after a heart attack. “I don’t know how people do it without support,” she said.

Mary Ann Beck, a Ridgefield resident, agreed.

“It supports me emotionally to know other women care, and we do care about each other,” Beck said. Like Babcock, she was born with a heart problem. She underwent surgery at Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., to repair a narrowing of her aorta when she was 9. She was one of the first children to receive the surgery to repair the defect, called coarctation of the aorta.

“I thought I was fixed,” she said. Now 64, she feels flushed and out of breath when she exercises. Doctors blew off the symptoms until she was finally referred to cardiologists who specialize in treating adults with congenital heart defects. They discovered that her aorta has narrowed again.

Her experience mirrors those of women with coronary artery disease who don’t recognize their symptoms as serious, and then see doctors who don’t, either.

“Women are dying of heart attacks,” Beck said. “Doctors can be educated — and women can be educated — to save lives.”