BY MICHAELA GIBSON MORRIS
Heart disease wasn't on Joyce Riley's radar screen.
“I never thought about heart disease,” said the 68-year-old Tupelo woman. “Everyone in my family (except her father) died from cancer.”
Riley thought she had the flu in October 2001, when doctors found a large blockage in her coronary arteries.
Young women can't ignore heart disease either.
Darlene Comish was one of the rare women who had the classic chest pain. But at the age of 34, she wasn't expecting a heart attack from a blood clot five years ago.
“If you feel pain (or other heart-related symptoms) and it doesn't go away, it needs to be checked out,” Comish said. “You can't be too careful when it comes to that.”
Waving red flags
Just as pink ribbons have raised awareness about breast cancer prevention, health advocates are waving red flags to get women to pay more attention to risk factors for heart disease.
The myth that heart disease only affects men still persists, said Tupelo cardiologist Barry Bertolet.
“Women over 45 are more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer,” Bertolet said.
Although less common, heart disease is affecting younger women, too.
“It's not uncommon for women in their 20s and 30s to have heart disease,” Bertolet said, especially if they have other risk factors like diabetes, obesity or high cholesterol.
Under the radar
However, heart problems in women often fly under the radar screen.
“Women present differently than men,” Bertolet said.
The classic case, where a man comes in clutching his chest, isn't common for women.
Recent studies show about a third of women have unexplained fatigue prior to a heart attack, Bertolet said. About 42 percent had sleep disturbances.
These kind of symptoms are often attributed to other problems by women and their physicians, such as anemia, menopause or overwork.
“When a woman has sleep disturbances, (unusual) fatigue or indigestion, she needs to think this could be her heart,” Bertolet said.
Several studies suggest women with heart disease do not fare as well as men, Bertolet said. However, men are often diagnosed at earlier ages and stages of heart disease and have more therapeutic options open to them.
“If we could improve on the front end, all the other (factors) will improve,” Bertolet said.
Preventive therapy, either with lifestyle changes, medication or minimally invasive surgery, can head off heart attacks, which leave the heart muscle damaged, Bertolet said. The same measures also prevent strokes.
For both men and women, the methods to reduce their risk of heart disease are the same – a low-fat diet, maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercise and avoiding tobacco products. People with high blood pressure and high cholesterol can reduce their risk with medication if lifestyle changes don't fully work.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Bertolet said.
Bertolet said it is particularly distressing to see the increase in teenage girls who are picking up smoking.
“Women are picking up cigarettes faster than men,” Bertolet said.
In addition to putting down the cigarettes, women and men need to get off the couch.
In Mississippi, where more than a third of the adult population is considered overweight, just getting people moving is a big start.
“Eighty percent (of Mississippians) are sedentary,” Bertolet said. “If you could just address that É that would have a huge impact.”
Heart disease was the last thing on Joyce Riley's mind in October 2001.
Walking to the mailbox was getting tougher. She had indigestion. But she just chalked it up to the emotional and physical toll wrought by a two-year battle with her husband Jack's cancer and the grief of his death.
“I had gotten really tired,” said Riley, now 68.
Then she started feeling achy like she had the flu. She thought it was bursitis making her shoulder ache.
She called friend and neighbor, Dr. Brian Friloux.
“I've got the flu and I've got company coming,” she told him. “Can you give me something for the flu?”
After talking over her symptoms, he had to work to convince her to go to the hospital.
“I told him I do not have time to go to the hospital,'” Riley said.
In the cath lab, cardiologists were able to remove a large blockage and place a stent in the artery before she had a health crisis.
“They felt I was on my way to a stroke or a heart attack,” Riley said.
Now she's resumed her full-steam-ahead life, busy with work, family and community. She's working on getting more exercise and losing weight.
“After something like this, you realize every day is a gift,” Riley said. “I've felt just wonderful.”
Darlene Comish didn't get much warning she was about to have a heart attack, triggered by an errant blood clot on a Thursday morning in June 1998.
“As soon as I sat up, I had a sharp pain between my breast bone,” Comish said.
Because she thought it was heartburn, she took some Mylanta, got up and fed her then 10-year-old son. But she kept getting worse. Her husband suggested she take a shower to see if that would make her feel better.
“In the shower my left arm starting tingling, my right arm went numb and I broke out in a cold sweat,” Comish said. “I thought This is not right.'”
By the time they arrived at Oktibbeha County Hospital in Starkville, Comish was doubled over in pain.
“It was the worst pain I'd ever had,” Comish said.
Comish had no history of heart disease, was not overweight and exercised regularly. Her blood pressure is actually too low and she takes medicine to keep it level.
“The whole time the nurses kept saying, You're not having a heart attack.'”
But the medication they gave her to knock out indigestion didn't work. Then the heart monitor went off and the unlikely heart attack took center stage.
When clot-busting drugs didn't work, they helicoptered her to North Mississippi Medical Center, where they were able to clear the clot. They hooked her up to a heart pump to give her damaged heart a rest, Comish said.
When the helicopter crew visited her during her 10-day ICU stay, they told her they had never come so close to losing someone.
“It was real touch and go the first day,” Comish said.
In some ways, Comish was lucky. The clot went to her heart and not her brain. And she got prompt medical treatment.
“It was just a freak thing,” Comish said. “But you don't take any kind of pain like that lightly.”