When I was about eight months pregnant with Ben, my first baby, I was diagnosed with something called preeclampsia. This is a serious condition affecting about 5% of pregnant women, identified by symptoms like sudden spikes in blood pressure, protein in the urine, severe swelling and headaches or vision problems. It’s also women’s third leading pregnancy-related cause of death. Preeclampsia is clinically described as:
“…a disorder of widespread vascular endothelial malfunction and vasospasm that occurs after 20 weeks’ gestation”.
Whenever you see the words “vascular” or “endothelial” or “vasospasm” in the same sentence, you know you’re likely talking about the heart. And although preeclampsia typically goes away after pregnancy, its diagnosis may well be an early indicator of underlying heart conditions that may simmer for decades. In fact, studies now show that pregnant women who develop preeclampsia have more than twice the risk of having a heart attack or stroke later in life.
“I’d love to speak about the patient’s perspective at your Toronto conference in June,” I said last winter in response to an invitation from Dr. Graeme Smith, a Canadian obstetrician who teaches at Queen’s University in Kingston and specializes in high-risk pregnancies. “But travelling halfway across the country is just too hard on me these days.”
Shortly after I turned down his kind invitation to speak, he invited me again (hey, he’s persistent!) – but this time he offered the irresistible option of speaking to the Toronto audience via teleconference. I asked him:
“Does this mean I can stay in my jammies, drink coffee at my kitchen table, and just speak to your group over the phone?!”
“Despite national campaigns to increase awareness and reduce cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality in women, CVD remains our leading cause of death, annually killing more women than men.”
That statement from experts meeting at the Minnesota Women’s Heart Summit should send chills down your spine. For a number of years we have known that women are under-diagnosed for heart disease – and then under-treated even when appropriately diagnosed – yet here are a bunch of world-class cardiologists and public health experts still puzzling on how to address the deadly issue that is our #1 killer. Or, to paraphrase heart attack survivor Laura Heywood-Cory‘s take on the state of women’s heart health:
Before surviving a heart attack in 2008, I never gave my heart more than a passing thought (except maybe when slogging up that brutal Quadra Street hill with my running group on our way back to the Y). But after my heart attack and accompanying shock, disbelief, grief and anger, I became just a wee bit obsessed. I threw myself into boning up on women’s symptoms, risk factors, diagnostics, treatments and emerging cardiac research as if I were cramming for some kind of imminent cardiology midterm.
I applied to attend the annual WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium for Women With Heart Disease at Mayo Clinic – and then became the first Canadian ever accepted for this patient advocacy training. I subscribed to daily cardiology bulletins and heart institutes’ news feeds. I launched this blog, Heart Sisters, and have written 500+ articles here so far. I’ve given presentations about women’s heart health to thousands of people. And I applied for media accreditation so I could interview cardiac researchers attending the 64th annual Canadian Cardiovascular Congress in Vancouver last fall, where I was shocked to find that only four of the 700 scientific papers presented at this conference were even remotely focused on women’s heart disease. I find this subject irresistibly compelling, and am almost insufferably preoccupied with All Things Cardiac.
I’m not interested in this Canadian women’s health initiative in Kingston, Ontario just because it will help identify links between our pregnancy complications and heart disease.
I’m not interested in this just because during my first pregnancy I was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia – a serious complication that has now been “strongly linked” with a marked increase in cardiovascular disease.
And I’m not interested just because I have such a personal soft spot for the historic limestone city of Kingston and for its venerable Queen’s University, along with other members of our family who are Queen’s grads – “Oil thigh na Banrighinn! Cha-gheill! Cha-gheill! Cha-gheill! ” (for those of you who happen to have your Gaelic-English dictionaries handy).