Her heart matters

A new grassroots campaign is saying that it’s time to stop Canadian women from dying unnecessarily.

Heart disease is the number one killer of women worldwide and it affects women of all ages. Wear Red Canada Day, organized by the Canadian Women’s Heart Health Alliance (CWHHA), was held February 13. The inaugural day raised awareness on social media and through regional events about women’s heart health and heart disease.

In Winnipeg, the CWHHA Manitoba chapter, in conjunction with St. Boniface Hospital, hosted a variety of events throughout the day, including a free women’s heart health talk for the public at the Hospital’s Albrechtsen Research Centre.

Former St. Boniface Hospital cardiac patient Patti LeBlanc was a guest speaker at the talk. Three years ago, she had been doing everything right: training to run a marathon at age 50, eating right, and taking care of herself. Her blood pressure and cholesterol levels were normal.

But on her way to a potluck meal at her church, LeBlanc picked up her Crock-Pot slow cooker and at that moment she “blew an artery”, as she put it. “I didn’t fit the normal heart attack mold; I was a long-distance runner,” she said. It felt like an elephant was sitting on her chest. But, oddly, the worst of her pain was in her chin.

I didn’t fit the normal heart attack mold; I was a long-distance runner.

Within an hour, she was wheeled into the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory (Cath Lab) and diagnosed with a heart attack caused by spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), in which a small tear forms within one of the blood vessels in the heart. It can lead to blood flow problems, heart attack, and even death.

Dr. Olga Toleva, an interventional cardiologist at St. Boniface Hospital, also spoke at the public lecture. Up to 90 per cent of cases of SCAD are in female patients, she told the audience. It’s common in otherwise healthy young women under 50 years of age and can also occur during pregnancy.

Women having heart attacks often present differently than men. In fact, studies have shown that 53 per cent of women who experience heart attack symptoms have them go unrecognized.

“Men will have the classic symptoms of heart attack – such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and sweating. That’s what we see on television,” she explained. But it can be very different for women, with symptoms that are more subtle. Women can experience a heart attack without chest pain or discomfort.

Common symptoms of a heart attack for women include shortness of breath, pressure or pain the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, upper back pressure, or extreme fatigue. Toleva said the pain can be felt elsewhere, such as in the chin and lower jaw, as LeBlanc experienced.

Risk factors for heart disease and stroke that are an even greater threat for women than for men include high blood pressure, diabetes, heavy drinking, and not enough exercise. High cholesterol, pre-eclampsia during pregnancy, and an irregular heart rhythm can also contribute to heart disease and stroke.

“Now I share my story and encourage other women to listen to their hearts,” said LeBlanc. “You know what’s normal. If something feels wrong, ask questions and be your own advocate.”

Fight heart disease. Donate to St. Boniface Hospital’s Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences today.