Women heart attack survivors know their place


by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

American broadcast journalist Barbara Walters once did a story on gender roles in Kabul, Afghanistan several years before the Afghan conflict. She noted that women customarily walked five paces behind their husbands.

Years later, she later returned to Kabul and observed that women still walk behind their husbands.

From Barbara’s vantage point, the women walked even further back behind their husbands, and seemed to appear happy to maintain the old custom.

She approached one of the Afghani women and asked: “Why do you continue with an old custom that you once tried so desperately to change?”  

The woman looked Barbara straight in the eyes, and without hesitation said: 

“Land mines!”

We don’t walk five paces behind our men here in North America, but when it comes to taking care of ourselves after a catastrophic health crisis like a heart attack, we might as well be.

A University of Iowa study followed married men and married women who had each survived a first heart attack over a six-month period after discharge from hospital.  For female heart patients, the daily grind of cooking, cleaning, child care and other household chores barely skips a beat.(1)

In the first month after a woman’s heart attack, her household activity declines somewhat below her normal level and her hubby picks up the slack, yielding “equal workloads for both spouses” according to lead author Dr. Jerry Suls, who adds:

But within a few more weeks, the domestic status quo returns, with women reclaiming a virtual monopoly on household duties.”

Male survivors rested at home during the follow-up, Dr. Suls remarked, with their wives handling most household tasks in their usual fashion. Dr. James Coyne, who studies survivors of heart disease, explained:

“Husbands of female heart attack survivors often exhibit a staunch unwillingness to assume domestic duties.”

And for advice about how to take care of your man when he’s sick, watch this hilarious little Man Cold video.

(1) Rose GL, Suls J, Green PJ, Lounsbury P, Gordon E. Comparison of adjustment, activity, and tangible social support in men and women patients and their spouses during the six months post-myocardial infarction. Ann Behav Med. 1996 Fall;18(4):264-72.

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote more about common responses when a family member becomes a heart patient in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”. You can ask for it at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price).

See also:

When Being Married Makes Being Sick Worse

In Praise of Solitude After a Heart Attack

Could Goodism and Self-Sacrifice Be Linked to Women’s Heart Disease?

Are You a Priority in your Own Life?

Listen Up, Ladies: 16 Things I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You

Knowing and Going: Act Fast When Heart Attack Symptoms Hit

7 thoughts on “Women heart attack survivors know their place

  1. Why did this study not surprise me? Trouble is, so many women are not standing up for themselves to ask for what they need, even while recuperating from something as traumatic as heart attack.


  2. This type of behavior is well illustrated in that amazing ‘Little Heart Attack’ film on your sites sidebar. So typical – women rushing around taking care of everybody else but not themselves. We all have to smarten up when our own health is at stake.


  3. Ouch. Could this study’s conclusions be merely a regional Iowa cornfield kind of phenomenon, like a spoof on how rural farmwives rush to resume their housewifely pie-baking duties even while recovering from a heart attack? It sounds like a throwback to the 1950s for Pete’s sake – except it’s not made up, these stats are real. WAKE UP, WOMEN!


  4. Hello Carolyn, I too was one of those women who “know their place” after returning home from hospital following open heart surgery last year. I just wanted to feel normal again, and what better way to feel normal than to throw yourself right back into your same old routine at work, home, outside commitments AS SOON AS POSSIBLE? It didn’t even occur to me to ask my family to pitch in with basic household tasks after the first couple weeks post-op. They were good at it for the first week or so, but all of us seemed to slip back into the old ways pretty fast, and I actually encouraged it!

    My advice: do not be like me, ladies! After a big trauma like a heart problem, you need to be very clear and firm with your family that you are simply not physically or emotionally able to do what you used to do. Life as they knew it is over. Time for everybody to help out, not just wait for mom to do it. Moms need to stand up for their own needs and rights. Stop being such a martyr and doormat for once in your life. Hard to do, I know. It was only after my heart attack that I realized how completely spoiled and self-absorbed my family had become but it was not their fault – I had trained them to count on me and only me. Crazy…

    I love your site – you cover important points that ALL WOMEN should be reading.

    S.D. in Eugene, Oregon


  5. I would have expected to see this back in the 40s or 50s – not in this century. It’s really hard to believe, yet if women won’t insist on the same quality of recuperation that men get, this lack of care is largely self-inflicted.


  6. As a woman, I was really tired. I had no pain. I just wanted to crawl in bed and cover my head up. I got into the bed and my daughter’s dogs laid right beside me. They knew something was wrong.


  7. Among women, menopausal women are more prone to heart attacks. Women often put themselves last because they have many responsibilities, but as soon as any women notice symptoms, they should get help immediately.


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