Six years ago, Jennifer Buss began to feel ill as she drove her car. Just as she was able to pull off the road and stop, she passed out. A trip to a cardiologist revealed she needed immediate open heart surgery.
As she prepared for it, her son, Zachary, then in kindergarten, reassured her. She’d be okay, he said, in the wise and certain way of young children. After all he had thrived — he had surgery at three weeks old to treat coarctation of the aorta, a heart disease that limits or prevents the aorta from supplying blood and nutrients to the body.
Cynthia Williams had just had her fourth child at age 41 when she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and so with an infant at home she underwent treatment for a condition she hadn’t known she had.
“I was not aware of what to look for,” said Williams, a resource manager at Housing Urban Development, and a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association (AHA). “Women don’t know what to look for. And many women still think of it as a man’s disease.”
Now both Buss and Williams are members of Go Red for Women, an organization created by the American Heart Association that encourages awareness of the issue of women and heart disease as well as to take action to save more lives. By sharing their stories, Buss and Williams help provide information about heart disease, the number one killer of women and more deadly than all forms of cancer combined.
“Women sometimes have different symptoms than men, such as older women and women with diabetes,” said Dr. Sabrina Akrami, a cardiologist affiliated with Ingalls Memorial Hospital. “They don’t get the classic symptoms that most of us associate with heart disease — a crushing pain in the chest, intense pain going down the arm. Instead they have can flu-like symptoms as well as fatigue and nausea.”
According to Brandi Collins, corporate events director for the AHA's Midwest affiliate, the number one symptom reported in the ER for women having heart attacks is nausea.
“We think of how many things can cause nausea,” she said, “and heart attacks aren’t one of them. Other symptoms can be a pain in the jaw or back.”
Buss, who lives in Lowell, had long known she had mitral valve prolapse, a heart problem in which the valve that separates the upper and lower chambers of the left side of the heart does not close properly. She had been diagnosed in her teens. But the diagnosing doctor had not made much of the issue — he just warned her to take antibiotics before going to the dentist.
She was never really treated for the disease until she moved to Northwest Indiana and her family doctor sent her to a cardiologist who ordered an echocardiogram and monitored her health. But her real focus was on Zachary, who had no detectable pulse in his feet when he was born.
“There are so many different aspects of cardiology issues,” said Buss, noting that Zachary, now a seventh grader, is doing well. “I had one, my son had one and they both were completely different.”
This February, Go Red for Women celebrates its tenth anniversary. Through the years, Diane Kemp, executive director of the AHA's Midwest affiliate, has seen a huge increase in the number of women joining the group and sharing their stories.
“So many women take care of others – their families, their house, their jobs. They need to take the time to take care of themselves,” she said.
Akrami recommends that women get regular screenings for cholesterol as well as high glucose levels, since diabetes is an indicator of heart disease. Family history can also play a large part.
"Knowing your body and making sure you act on anything that seems unusual is important,” Collins said.
“Breast cancer is not the number one killer, uterine cancer is not the number one killer disease either, heart disease is,” said Williams, a Schererville resident. “Breast cancer takes its time to kill you. Heart disease kills you suddenly and silently.”
Go Red for Women is having several events in the next few months. To find out more, visit heart.org.