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 (the first of many I would attend over the years) – 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 both astonishing and 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).
I’m nicely settled back home now after a few days across the pond in beautiful Vancouver, where I was covering the 64th Annual Canadian Cardiovascular Congress there for Heart Sisters readers.
My favourite things about this trip: the weather, walking the Vancouver sea wall, the mountains, the divine heart-smart food, the fabulously helpful Heart and Stroke Foundation staff at the Media Centre, and the fact that I somehow managed to p-a-c-e myself most days while trying to take care of my heart.
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.
In the early hours, days and weeks following my heart attack, many conversations with family and friends started the same way: “How could this have happened to YOU?” – followed by an expectant pause during which I was supposed to explain myself. If only I’d been a chain-smoker, or had been living with diabetes, or hadn’t been a distance runner for almost 20 years. It would have somehow seemed more comforting to them, because it might mean that my heart disease was self-inflicted, that something like this could never touch them. Continue reading “Heart attack: did you bring this on yourself?”→