Two organizations very dear to my heart – literally – were featured last month in Time magazine’s Women and Health series. Both the world-famous Mayo Clinic and the not-for-profit organization called WomenHeart: The National Coalition For Women With Heart Disease were singled out because of a unique and life-altering program they host for women heart disease survivors. As a 2008 graduate of the annual WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium at the Mayo Women’s Heart Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, I was thrilled to see these two pioneering advocates for women’s heart health acknowledged by Time.
Each year, Mayo’s leading heart specialists welcome 50 heart disease survivors attending this five-day Symposium. I like to describe it as part world class cardiology training, and part community activism bootcamp. Time magazine describes it like this:
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“The idea is to educate women and empower them to spread their newfound knowledge about women and heart disease in their home communities. That’s the point, says the Symposium’s leader, Dr. Sharonne Hayes, director of the Mayo Women’s Heart Clinic.
“When she and three heart disease patients came up with the original idea for the Symposium back in 2002, they had one goal: to awaken patients and doctors to the impact heart disease has on the 42 million North American women currently living with it — and the families of the millions more who did not survive.
“Heart disease is the leading killer of women, each year claiming more women than men. Yet most participants in that first class had never met another female heart patient, and most had harrowing tales (like mine) of having their condition misdiagnosed or being dismissed by doctors who didn’t think they could be suffering from heart disease.
“Most doctors are now aware that men and women may have different symptoms when suffering a heart attack. And survivors who ‘graduate’ from the Mayo Clinic Symposium are spreading that word and more by holding support groups at hospitals, community centres and churches, and doing community awareness presentations to other women as well as to health care professionals.
“Trained Mayo grads share their own heart disease stories with these groups, but then go on to explore why women experience heart disease in such a gender-specific way.
“For example, while heart attacks in both men and women are primarily caused by the buildup of atherosclerotic plaques within blood vessel walls in the heart, these deposits don’t always look the same, nor do they occur in the same places. In men, the lesions usually occur in the bigger blood vessels, bulging out into the vessel’s cavity. That makes them easy to spot when doctors perform an angiogram or image the heart with scanners.
“In women, however, the accumulation may be more diffuse, spreading out among much smaller vessels, which causes the whole artery to appear technically clear, even if it’s narrowed enough to cause distressing symptoms. Some medications can expose the more restricted function of these vessels, but often cardiologists won’t perform additional tests when they don’t spot any obvious blockages. See also: How Women Can Have Heart Attacks Without Having Any Blocked Arteries.
“A lot of doctors will see that the vessels look normal and stop,” says Dr. Annabelle Volgman, medical director of the Heart Center for Women at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
“Even after a heart attack, the arteries of 30% of female survivors still appear to be clear.
“Graduates of the WomenHeart Symposium at Mayo are hoping to make a difference by serving as resources for their communities, speaking intelligently about their experiences and inspiring more women-specific studies.
“Dr. Hayes’ hope is that by the time she retires, specialized centers like hers won’t be necessary – and that every patient with heart disease will be treated with the best available individualized therapies.
“I don’t see that happening real soon,” she says, recognizing that physicians are just beginning this new approach to research. Then she adds, “But I also have a ways to go before I retire.”
© 2010 Time
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Interested in applying to the WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium at Mayo Clinic?
If you are a woman living with heart disease, are at least six months past your last hospitalization for cardiac treatment, have your doctor’s permission to travel to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota to attend this Symposium, are comfortable speaking in public, and have a strong interest in making a real difference to women’s heart health as a community educator, consider applying to attend this year’s Symposium at Mayo Clinic in October. Application deadline each year is usually mid-summer.
Find out more from WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease.