We get (rightly) angry at wage disparity. We support other women through the Me Too and other movements. But why do we not seem to notice that simple ignorance is causing women to die unnecessarily of heart attacks? Maybe it’s just that most people don’t know.
Did you know that heart attack signs for women are generally different than men? Did you know that the average male heart is slightly different than the average female heart? It stunned me to learn that the majority of women who report heart attack signs are ignored or misdiagnosed. Even the stress test we use to diagnose heart issues was designed by and for men and are not as effective for women. Tell everyone you know.
There are a lot of reasons for this high level of disparity and ignorance, and it goes back in history. Women were (except for the child bearing & bleeding part) essentially considered small men. Our hormones make baseline studies harder, so for the most part, women weren’t included in studies about important things like the heart. After all, it was the men who were the breadwinners, so their wellbeing mattered the most in society. (Tongue firmly in cheek.)
Another historical problem is the diagnosis of hysteria … a condition only found in the “weaker sex.” Hysteria was actually in the medical books until the 1980’s and is the foundation of why so many women over 50 are afraid to make a fuss and speak up. They don’t want to seem hysterical, after all. Plus, the doctor knows best, right?
Except they often don’t. Even the best doctors in the world are trained using the same medical studies and texts that until recently, haven’t included much data on the frequently unique aspects of women and the heart. So, first responders, nurses, doctors … most of them are generally not focused on heart attack symptoms that are often unique to women. My Mom has had four heart attacks. None of them caused any pain – just discomfort. But isn’t it interesting that every time I take her to the hospital, the medical professionals I’ve come across at emerg ask her “Are you experiencing chest pain?” and of course, she says “Oh no – no pain.” The same was true for me. I had a heart attack. There was no sharp chest pain. My left arm didn’t go numb. I didn’t sweat. There was no sense of urgency. It was all very quiet, civilized and didn’t match what our movies and TV show us about heart attacks.
That’s why it’s essential that we’re more knowledgeable and advocate for ourselves and the women we know. (Some men also experience similar symptoms.)
In my volunteer work, I talk to patients (and their families) who are about to have open heart surgery. Every time I meet a woman on the ward, I congratulate her for making it that far. I can’t even tell you how many women I’ve come across who were originally misdiagnosed or ignored, but they were adamant that something was wrong, and were eventually listened to.
In the fall of 2017, I sat in a restaurant during the lunch rush and tried to explain away a wave of nausea and figure out why my arms were so weak. I wondered why my neck felt weird and why I was so tired that talking took a bit too much effort. As I tried to explain it all away, it would pass and I felt fine. Then it would happen again. I heard myself say to my friend, “I just don’t feel right.”
The words of my mother from years earlier echoed in my brain. When she was 50 years of age, my fit Mom had a heart attack. She said it was no big deal – nothing dramatic – she just didn’t feel right. She had a bit of pressure in her neck and chest. With that in mind, I figured I should get it checked out. Even as I was experiencing the heart attack symptoms, my (older and wiser) friend thought I was experiencing indigestion. It was the restaurant manager who quietly said to my friend “I think she is having a heart attack.” God bless her.
Thirty minutes later I was in the village hospital ER, calmly telling them that I should probably get checked out. Thirty minutes after the fresh-faced doctor came over and gently said, “It appears Miss White that you’re having a heart attack.” It was all very calm and civilized. It’s worth mentioning that a heart attack is when one of the coronary arteries becomes blocked. The heart muscle is robbed of its vital blood supply and, if left untreated, will begin to die because it is not getting enough oxygen.
Here’s the sad truth: If I had been home alone, I probably would have had a lie-down until the weird sick feelings and weakness stopped. One of my arteries had a 100% blockage, and the others were over 75% blocked. I don’t know if I would have woken up.
You have the power to save lives. At this moment you know more about typical female heart attacks than most people. Spread the word. Ignorance is not a reasonable cause of death, is it? We don’t need to die from a broken heart.
Drawing on her years of corporate and non-profit experience in senior leadership, Adrienne White is an instructor, professional speaker and coach specializing in Adaptation. Her focus on helping women to face down their inner blocks and showing them how to stop their brain from hijacking best intentions. Adrienne’s Mom moved in with her a few years back and she is now also embracing the role of caregiver.
That was all interrupted when Adrienne experienced a heart attack in late 2017, got stents and had open heart surgery. While in the hospital she noticed there were very few women having surgery. Later she learned the reason: They didn’t make it.
Link to typial symptoms of female heart attacks: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/chronic-diseases/cardiovascular-disease/what-symptoms-heart-attacks-women.html
For people (and their family/friends) about to have open heart surgery: https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/chronic-diseases/cardiovascular-disease/what-symptoms-heart-attacks-women.html