By Heather Mullinix
Ask most women how to heal a heart and they’ll tell you to lean on the women in your life. That’s no different whether the ailment is emotional grief or physical illness.
With heart disease remaining the number one killer of women, the need for women to help care for their own hearts and the hearts of the women they care about remains a priority.
Ashley Trambly, who works in the Cumberland Medical Center Cardiac Rehabilitation department, said, “We work with people each day to fight and fix the problems caused by heart disease.”
That includes educating patients on diet and nutrition and providing an exercise specialist to help those who have experienced heart disease learn how to exercise safely. Patients are referred to Cardiac Rehab after undergoing treatment for heart disease to help them grow strong.
But though heart disease causes one in three women’s deaths each year, approximately one every minute, Trambly said there is a surprisingly low number of women taking advantage of the services offered through Cardiac Rehab.
One reason for that could be that women, often the caretakers of others, don’t make the time to care for themselves, said Dr. Tamera Collins, speaker at the annual Go Red for Women luncheon Feb. 7 at CMC.
“We make our loved ones go to the doctor,” Collins said. “But women always sacrifice their self to take care of our families.”
From downplaying symptoms to not realizing the symptoms for heart disease can be different for women than men, Collins said many times women wait much longer to seek treatment than men.
“So when we do present for treatment, the situation is a lot worse,” she said. “But the best way to take care of our loved ones is by example. We have to take care of ourselves so that we can take care of our families.”
While everyone recognizes chest pain as a symptom in need of medical attention, many more subtle clues may be ignored or attributed to other causes. These include shortness of breath, back pain, jaw pain and nausea.
Collins advised everyone, “If you think it’s your heart, go to the hospital.”
Judie Hart and Lois Ragsdale both shared their stories of learning to live with heart disease with the women gathered.
“No one plans to have a heart problem,” Hart said. She explained she had been diagnosed with cardio myopathy and only about 20 percent of her heart was functioning.
“I thought, gee, that’s not much,” she said. Her doctor referred her to Cardiac Rehab, where she has gotten stronger through her supervised exercise.
She also found a strong support system of other women living with heart disease. Organized by Ragsdale, the women of the cardiac rehab class get together monthly for lunch and to talk. They were critical in helping Hart through her grief when her husband passed away in November.
“You’ll never know how much good they did this heart,” she said.
Ragsdale has been through the cardiac rehab program several times. As a teen, she was treated for Hodgkins Disease. While the cobalt treatments gave her years to marry, have children and grandchildren, it also damaged her heart. At first, she was told she had a heart murmur, and later told she had a leaky valve that needed to be monitored.
In 2003, however, she complained to her doctor of her chest feeling full. A stress test was ordered and she ended up needing heart catheterization. A stent was placed, but the doctor warned he had only been able to restore about 40 percent flow to the artery, and he expected it would fail before long.
When it did, she had open heart surgery, and the recovery was difficult. Two weeks later, she was back in the hospital and suffered episodes of atrial fibrillation over two years. She also learned of a problem with her aortic valve.
“I convinced myself I would never feel good again,” she said.
In 2009, she had a heart attack, but the surgeon was more concerned with the aortic valve. Unfortunately, the valve was heavily calcified and, at the time, the procedure was too risky for Ragsdale and she was not a candidate for valve replacement.
“I didn’t feel sorry for myself,” she said. “God had given me all these years.”
A few years later, a new procedure became available that did allow her to have the valve replaced and, after recovering, she entered cardiac rehab.
In March 2013, she needed another stent, and she started rehab yet again.
“Before, there had been only me and maybe one other woman in the program with all the men,” Ragsdale said. “This time, there were nine ladies in my class.”
They began meeting the second Monday of the month and continue to do so. Ragsdale invited other women living with heart disease to join them. She may be contacted at email@example.com for meeting times and locations.
Ragsdale has continued to have heart troubles, and she’s not a candidate for another bypass surgery, so she said she’s not sure what the future holds for her.
“God is in charge of our life,” she said. “I don’t know what my future holds, but he does.”