Stories of Women and Heart Disease

Updated:Oct 24,2012

Judith Leitner
Heart Disease and Stroke Survivor

Member of the Maryland Advocacy Committee

Christie Faccio
Michigan State University Student

Lost mother from a heart attack

Rose Marie Jenkins

Born with a Congenital Heart Defect. Survivor of mechanical heart valve implant surgery.

Dr. Joana Magno
Interventional Cardiologist

Assistant Clinical Professor at University of Hawaii

Linda Gordon
Nurse Practitioner

Runs risk reduction program at hospital

KC Sanders

Stroke Survivor Hospital Volunteer in Neuroscience Department  

Janet Connors

Registered Nurse President, AHA Florida / Puerto Rico Affiliate
Committee Member: FloridaPublic Advocacy
Subcommittee/ National Advocacy
Coordinating Committee  

Susan Bradbury-Sneddon

Heart disease survivor, she was misdiagnosed for over 20 years. AHA Community Advocacy Director / Indiana Heart and Stroke Director  

 

Judith Leitner

judy

Heart disease and stroke survivor
Member of the Maryland Advocacy committee
Chevy Chase, MD

Judith Leitner knew that heart disease ran in her family, and that her cholesterol count was over 500.  Yet when she had pains radiating through her jaw to my head, she was told by her doctor, "Take another Pepcid, honey!"   Since then, Judith has dedicated herself to raising the awareness of other women to the risk factors and symptoms of heart disease.  She is a passionate AHA volunteer and dedicated member of the You’re the Cure network.

“My doctors and I did not pay attention to my symptoms - we considered heart disease to be a man's disease,” Judith explains. Although her physical symptoms increased, her stress tests were normal, making the diagnosis even harder.  She had a PET scan in 1996, as a precursor to a surgical procedure, and failed miserably.  After undergoing an angiogram, Judith’s doctor told her she needed quadruple by-pass surgery – yesterday.  Shortly after the surgery, Judith experienced numbness, confusion, and had trouble speaking.  Once again, she was viewed as a woman under stress instead of a symptomatic patient. When a neurologist was finally called in, he diagnosed a brain stem stroke.  “I have learned the hard way that women need to be more assertive in taking care of their health care decisions, “she says.

Judith is now completely recovered from the stroke and is dealing aggressively with her cardiovascular disease through diet, exercise, medications, and medical procedures.  She has had carotid artery surgery on one side and is exploring stenting research to make a decision about the other carotid artery.  “Imagine, at this time I have treatment options.  It is amazing to consider how far we have come.”

Christie Faccio

christie

Michigan State University student
Lost mother from a heart attack
Lansing, MI

Christie’s mother suffered a heart attack at home one morning in 2002.  Despite CPR efforts and 911 calls, Christie’s mom passed away.  “The images of seeing this happen to my absolute best friend changed my 19-year-old life in many indescribable ways. My mother had the symptoms,” she says.  For six months, Christie’s mom was ill with “indigestion”, could not sleep and suffered extreme exhaustion.  Her family had no idea that her symptoms were classic female signs for a heart attack.  “Tragically, none of us were aware at the time that heart disease in woman could present that way,” Christine says.

For six months, Christie’s mother’s pain was attributed to simply “heartburn.” Her mother went to the ER the night before she died, finally believing that she felt she was having a heart attack.  Unfortunately, Christie’s mother’s doctor again told her she had “heartburn”.  He gave her medicine to numb the pain and sent her home.  She collapsed the next morning at home and died of a massive heart attack.

Christie has become a passionate speaker about her mother’s life. “This experience has changed me.  I will never be the same.  My mother's premature death has turned my path 180 degrees,” she says. “I have gone from wanting to work with animals to spending the rest of my life fighting for her memory – fighting so that no one else will lose her mother the way that I did and fighting to make people understand that hundreds of thousands of women die each year from cardiovascular disease and because of that, hundreds of thousands of people's lives are never the same again.”

To other women, Christie advises, “Be assertive in your health care.  Do not let a doctor brush you off.  Ever.   If you have concerns, you have the right to have them resolved.  Don't let anyone ever convince or tell you otherwise.”

Rose Marie Jenkins

rosemary

Born with a congenital heart defect
Survivor of mechanical heart valve implant surgery
Birmingham, AL

“At age 12, my mom told me that I was born with a heart condition called Mitral Valve Prolaspe, which meant that I had a bad heart valve that wasn’t working the way that it should,” says Rose.  “I didn’t recognize the need for monitoring my heart health until I reached the age of twenty-six.” Although she was diagnosed as a child, it wasn’t until her mid-twenties that Rose began experiencing a persistent discomfort in her chest, which she thought was simply acid reflux or indigestion. Her symptoms increased, including a persistent cough that led her to seek medical attention. At the local hospital the doctors diagnosed her with bronchitis and mentioned some leakage in her heart.  Yet, they simply wrote her a prescription for cough medicine and sent her home.

Rose tried to go about her normal life, but two months later, she continued to have a bad cough and noticed swelling in her legs. “I immediately called my aunt, a cardiac nurse, and told her about my symptoms,” she says.” She went to her aunt for a scan, and they found a problem – her heart was enlarged 72 centimeters and working at only 15 percent.

“The doctors said, ‘If we let her go home today, she'll be dead by the weekend,’” Rose says.
Today, Rose has seriously changed her lifestyle by exercising daily and watching what and how she eats to avoid becoming overweight. “I want women everywhere to know the problem is real.  I’m a living witness. I want legislators to know that if it had not been for research and medicine I would not be here today with my family. Today more research is greatly needed to continue giving people like me a second chance at life,” she says. “Please don’t be afraid of knowledge and always ask questions when it comes to your health. Put down the salt, watch your cholesterol and get plenty of exercise.” 

Dr. Joana Magno

joanna

Interventional Cardiologist
Assistant Clinical Professor at University of Hawaii
Honolulu, Hawaii

As one of only three female cardiologists in Hawaii – and a longtime AHA volunteer – Dr. Magno has become a passionate lecturer about cardiovascular disease in women.  “I first became involved on the local level in advocating for women and heart disease at least 12 years ago,” she says. “I don’t really remember when this became a high profile issue in Hawaii, but we had several grants to do programs for the public years before the Go Red campaign launch.”

Today, Dr. Magno continues to lead both professional and educational programs on heart disease in women. She is one of the AHA’s leading spokespersons on women and heart disease and has received an Outreach Award for her volunteer work with the Go Red For Women campaign.

Linda Gordon

linda

Nurse Practitioner
Runs Risk Reduction program at hospital
Pittsburgh, PA

Linda Gordon works with heart patients as a nurse practitioner.  Teaming up with an interventional cardiologist, Linda does rounds at the hospital three days a week.  It was through this interaction with heart patients that Linda realized the need for awareness and education about the risk factors for heart disease.  She now runs a Risk Reduction outpatient clinic in Pittsburgh.  The majority of her patients used to be those who have already suffered a cardiac episode, but she is increasingly seeing people who have many risk factors but haven’t experienced a major cardiac event.    “Some patients just don’t know the symptoms. One of my patients was an emergency room nurse, and well aware of the symptoms.  However, when she had nausea and vomiting, and other heart attack signs, she called her fellow nurse and neighbor who eventually talked her into going to the hospital for help,” she says. 

Linda is actively involved with AHA’s Go Red for Women movement and AHA’s Heart Ball and wants to make sure women realize the major risk factors for cardiovascular disease. “I’ve done many surveys.  Women still don’t understand the causal relationship with diabetes and heart disease.”

KC Sanders

kc

Stroke Survivor
Hospital volunteer in Neuroscience Department
Bath, MI

KC suffered a stroke in 1997 after experiencing a severe headache that she thought was a migraine.  Luckily, she was able to get to the hospital, where doctors quickly recognized KC had had a stroke. She stayed in the ICU unit for 42 days and had to re-teach herself to dress, walk and move.  While she is doing well today, she still suffers side effects from the stroke, often feeling a sensation in her left side. 

Since then, KC has become a staunch advocate for the AHA/ASA. She has given many presentations and interviews on the local level, has lectured to students at Michigan State and has attended AHA’s National Lobby Day in Washington, D.C.  KC tells other women to “stay on top of your health. Listen to your body, not others and their experiences.  Be in tune, stop and take a breath.”  To legislators, KC advises them, “You don’t want this to happen to someone close to you.  Please direct funds to research and prevention of stroke.”

Janet Connors

janet

Registered Nurse
President, AHA Florida / Puerto Rico Affiliate

Committee Member:  Florida Public Advocacy Subcommittee/ National Advocacy Coordinating Committee   
Ormond Beach, FL

Janet Connors is a registered nurse and current President of AHA’s Florida/Puerto Rico affiliate.  She works  tirelessly to educate women on cardiovascular disease risk factors such as high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and physical inactivity. This information is vital to help women take charge of their health and control these risk factors so they can “live longer, stronger, and healthier lives,” Janet says,
“As professionals, parents, and caregivers, women today are burdened with tremendous demands that make it difficult for them to find the time to care for themselves,” she says..  “Because women are often busy caring for others, they can easily neglect their own health – and often do.”  As an AHA volunteer advocate, a healthcare professional, and a woman with a strong family history of cardiovascular disease, Janet knows how important it is for legislators to take action.  She encourages them to demonstrate proactive leadership and advances public health policies that will help in the fight against heart disease and stroke in women.  She also encourages other women to get involved in the legislative process. “Through the AHA You’re the Cure Grassroots Advocacy, my voice, expertise, personal stories, commitment and passion makes a difference!”

Susan Bradbury-Sneddon

susan

Heart disease survivor misdiagnosed for over 20 years
AHA Community Advocacy Director / Indiana Heart and Stroke Director
Brazil, IN

Susan’s symptoms began 20 years ago, when she started to have intermittent slight pain in her chest, left arm, and back.  She made an appointment with a cardiologist who said she was being ‘overdramatic.’
Ten years later, Susan changed cardiologists and was told that she had a mitrol valve prolapse.  “He assured me it was a common thing, that some people had pain with it and others didn’t, and gave me nitroglycerin tablets to take under my tongue when the pain was most severe,” she says,  “He refilled my prescription for the next several years without requiring me to come in and have more tests.  He said I was a young woman, and too young for any heart problems.”

In November 1997, Susan was returning home from an AHA local volunteer board meeting and was feeling terrible.  She couldn’t get her breath and like before, her chest, back and left arm hurt, but now she was also in a terrible cold sweat and was freezing.  “I didn’t want to go to the hospital because I thought I had the flu, and would be embarrassed if the AHA Heart Director thought she was having a heart attack and it turned out to be only indigestion,” Susan says. “My husband held up one of the AHA’s brochures I had used that night at the meeting.  It said, ‘Don’t die of embarrassment.  If you have these symptoms, go to the hospital.’  I went to the hospital.”
The ER doctor told Susan that she couldn’t possibly be having a heart attack or any problem with her heart because she’s too young and that women think they have heart problems all the time, but it’s always something else.  After a couple of hours, the ER doctor tried to release Susan, telling her that she just had some indigestion and maybe the beginning of the flu.

“After all these years, I knew enough to tell him to call my cardiologist, she says. Begrudgingly, he called her cardiologist who admitted Susan. “The ER doctor’s last words to me that night were ‘Come by the ER in the morning to tell me good-bye when you’re dismissed.’”
The next morning, her cardiologist found that she had a rare birth defect – an LAD fistula, or an extra hole in her heart the size of an ink pen.  This meant about   half of her blood was not   passing through her heart, making her heart work twice as hard and beat twice as fast.   The doctor explained that her heart had just worked too hard all those years and it was finally giving out.  She needed open heart surgery to correct and repair it immediately, and if not, her r heart will not last more than a few more weeks, if that. 

“My heart was already enlarged.  When I had the surgery, they also found a large aneurysm that was ready to burst.  After living 49 years with an undiagnosed heart defect and 20 of those years in mild to severe pain, I am now living with a good prognosis because of heart research and the knowledge given to me through American Heart Association’s education and programs,” Susan says. “I am so very fortunate.”


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Heart Disease and Women

In 2004, the American Heart Association (AHA) faced a challenge. Cardiovascular disease claimed the lives of nearly 500,000 American women each year, yet women were not paying attention. In fact, many even dismissed it as an “older man’s disease.” To dispel the myths and raise awareness of heart disease as the number one killer of women, the American Heart Association created Go Red For Women – a passionate, emotional, social initiative designed to empower women to take charge of their heart health.  The Association also got involved on a federal level to push for passage of the HEART for Women Act (S. 438/H.R. 3526), and we succeeded!  In July 2012 an important piece of the HEART for Women Act was passed and signed into law! This provision, which passed as part of a larger bill reforming the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), requires the FDA to report on how new prescription drugs and medical devices work in women and minorities.

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