WomenHeart groups in Clark County help those facing heart disease

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter



Do you eat breakfast?

  • Yes. It’s the most important meal of the day. 60%
  • Sometimes, if I’m hungry. 17%
  • No. I just drink coffee in the morning. 15%
  • I don’t have time for breakfast. 8%

118 total votes.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death of American women, claiming the lives of more than 400,000 women each year.

Each year, more women than men die of cardiovascular disease. And among women 35 to 44 years old, the rate of death attributed to cardiovascular disease has increased an average of 1.3 percent each year. Comparable rates among men have been falling, according to the American Heart Association.

Did You Know?

Women experiencing a heart attack are more likely than men to have other symptoms unrelated to chest pain. About 40 percent of women do not experience chest pain at all when having a heart attack.

Here are heart attack warning signs:

• Chest discomfort, pain, squeezing, burning or mild to severe pressure that lasts more than a few minutes or comes and goes.

• Upper body discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach.

• Shortness of breath (with or without chest discomfort).

• Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, nausea and vomiting, cold sweats.

• Feelings of anxiety, fatigue or weakness (unexplained or on exertion).

Source: WomenHeart

But many women don't know much about heart disease or their risk.

"I knew nothing about heart disease until I had it," Leslea Steffel-Dennis said.

Steffel-Dennis and two other Clark County women living with heart disease, Bj Babcock and Bonnie Johnson, have teamed up with WomenHeart, a national coalition for women with heart disease, to change that.

Five years ago, Babcock, who also serves as the Pacific Northwest regional director for WomenHeart, formed a WomenHeart support group in Vancouver — the first in the region.

"When we first started, I had months when only one person would show up," Babcock said.

If You Go

• What: WomenHeart of Clark County support group.

• When: 7 to 8:30 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month.

• Where: Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, third floor, conference room B, 2211 N.E. 139th St., Vancouver.

• More information: Bj Babcock, bbabcock52@gmail.com or 360-887-4694; or Leslea Steffel-Dennis, lsdheart@gmail.com or 360-597-3061. www.womenheart.org.

• New group: WomenHeart member Bonnie Johnson has started a new monthly support group for residents of north Clark County. The group’s next meeting is 1:30 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 6 at Three Creeks Community Library, 800-C Tenney Road, Vancouver.

Now, the monthly meetings draw about 15 people. The group's email newsletter has more than 40 subscribers.

Earlier this year, Johnson — a regular attendee of the support group for years — decided to start another WomenHeart support group in northern Clark County.

"It's such an invisible disease," Johnson said. "Somebody who needs a cane, you can see a problem. We have our surgeries. We take our medications. … You walk into a room and don't know this is a room of women with heart disease."

Living with heart disease

Heart disease refers to a range of conditions that affect the heart, such as coronary artery disease, heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias) and congenital heart defects. Other heart conditions, such as those that affect your heart's muscle, valves or rhythm, also are considered forms of heart disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The term "heart disease" is often used interchangeably with the term "cardiovascular disease." Cardiovascular disease generally refers to conditions that involve narrowed or blocked blood vessels, which can lead to a heart attack, chest pain (angina) or stroke, according to Mayo Clinic.

Babcock was born with a congenital heart defect that was diagnosed when she was 2. Babcock lived in denial about the defect for years, trying to convince herself exercise and a healthy lifestyle would prevent her from ever needing surgery.

In 1998, at age 46, Babcock's doctors told her the time for surgery had come.

"I had no one to talk to," she said. "I needed another person to connect to."

A friend of Babcock's who lived in Iowa told her about WomenHeart. Babcock got involved with the organization and, in 2009, launched the WomenHeart of Clark County support group.

"I wanted to be there for other people who didn't have anyone," Babcock said.

The support groups allow women to talk about what they're going through with other women who have been there. A heart disease diagnosis is traumatic, Babcock said. After a while, you've talked to everyone in your life about it and still feel like you want to share more, she said.

The women aim to not only provide once-a-month camaraderie but to support other women living with heart disease. The women go to doctor's appointments with newly diagnosed women. They help women to advocate for themselves. They meet over coffee just to listen.

The WomenHeart coordinators also work to educate women about their risk of heart disease, speaking at clinics, hospitals and churches.

Nearly 43 million women are currently living with some form of cardiovascular disease; 6.6 million are living with coronary heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.

"As far as I'm concerned, every woman is at risk," Babcock said.