A Condition of the Heart

Photo Sarah Whiting

On February 7, 2014, I had a stress test scheduled at a Twin Cities hospital. I’d had a little pain in my back and arms, some shortness of breath over the previous weeks that seemed to be getting worse, leaden legs, a burning jaw and lightheadedness. 

After several previous uneventful and inconclusive emergency room visits, I felt foolish. I even considered skipping the appointment that morning because of the waste of time I anticipated it would be for the hospital staff and for myself. I’d walk on the treadmill, barely break a sweat, grab a cup of coffee and get back to work — my “symptoms” written off as the results of an overcommitted schedule, or raging anxiety, or a weight gain, or the aging process. Any of that would make sense to me. 

But something told me not to. 

Rarely do we stop and listen to our heart until it flat out refuses to do its non-negotiable work. As if drastic measures must be taken to make us slow down, to catch our ragged breath and insist: wait a minute, something is wrong. 

That morning I went to the hospital, walked on the treadmill, and instead of having coffee, was directed to another part of the facility to have a stent put  into the abnormally blocked left anterior descending artery of my heart. Diagnosis: coronary heart disease. 

Awareness of women’s heart health

February is American Heart Month. The first Friday of the month is marked National Wear Red Day, to raise awareness of women’s heart health and heart disease.

As I waited in the hospital for my procedure that morning, I watched television talk show guests throw out facts that an hour earlier had been irrelevant  background noise to me, I realized there was a lot I didn’t know. 

For example, that heart disease and stroke continue to be the number one killer of women in the U.S. That one in three deaths of women are from heart disease and stroke every year. 

For too long, women have remained far less visible in the discourse about heart disease. Due to its uncommon symptoms and the fact that women are less likely to seek help quickly — we are more likely to be aware of breast cancer — heart disease is less recognized in women than in men. 

“This is heart rehab, not a Dayton’s Daisy sale,” an elderly gentleman quipped on my first day, I was the only woman in an early morning cardiac rehabilitation group. 

It was incredibly clear that my presence was to be the exception rather than the rule. My femaleness was an anomaly in a group of men who, through the next several months, would collectively resemble a factionof my dad’s coffee group — I also was the youngest in the group by at least two decades. 

During the recovery process I was disheartened by how little information was available, how difficult services were to find for women living with heart disease, and how isolating that would be. I was dismayed by the lack of support.

Friday, February 3, 2018, will mark 15 years since the inaugural National Wear Red Day. It marks four years that I’ve been on my own journey of recovery. 

While I’ve never been a big fan of awareness days, I will be wearing red this year to be a visible advocate for women’s heart health and to promote taking seriously the body’s warning signs of heart disease. 

I’ll be wearing red as part of a community in which the heart is more than a functionary organ — it’s part of what connects us to one another.