Ciara McGrath was lying on the bed reading a book when the room went — as she puts it — “spinny crazy like you can’t even imagine.”
“I could barely walk. I was falling over,” she recalls.
After passing out and being resuscitated in an ER, she was referred to Rush University Medical Center, where she was diagnosed with a heart condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. First she underwent an ablation procedure, then electrophysiologist Richard Trohman, MD, implanted a cardiac device “to make sure I don’t have any episodes like that again.”
“I know that I’m safe now, and I’m more active than I’ve ever been in my entire life,” she says. “Dr. Trohman, the nurses, the entire staff here in the EP department, they’re like family. They took such good care of me, I can’t imagine not coming to see them at least once a year to have things checked out.”
In 1984, there were more women who died of cardiovascular disease than men. Cardiovascular disease has been the number one killer of American women, more than all cancers put together. Women were being treated differently than men, including hormone replacement therapy for high cholesterol instead of the more effective cholesterol-lowering medications called statins. This resulted in thousands more women dying from cardiovascular disease.
In 2001, the American Heart Association started a campaign to increase awareness about heart disease in women. This campaign was named the Go Red for Women campaign in 2003. Lynne Braun PhD, ANP, and I were involved with the inception of the awareness campaign, and we both continue to be involved with Go Red for Women.
In 2003, the Rush Heart Center for Women opened its doors to prevent and treat heart disease in women. In addition to our services, we also offered complimentary nutrition counseling, which we were able to offer through funding from grateful donors. We wanted to give comprehensive evaluation and compassionate care to prevent devastating cardiac events.
Teams of specially trained “comfort dogs” visited and provided comfort to the survivors of the Oklahoma tornadoes, Boston marathon bombings and Sandy Hill school shootings. But what do we know about pets and the health of their owners? In particular, does pet ownership promote heart health?
The answer is probably yes. The American Heart Association recently published a scientific statement on pet ownership and risk for cardiovascular disease. This statement reviewed the results of research on pet ownership and high blood pressure, cholesterol, physical activity, obesity and even survival. Although some studies are conflicting, most show the following:
Women tend to not only take on their own stress, but also that of their families. This compounds the potential health hazards that include both psychological and physical issues.
Women tend to use food to suppress the impact of stress, resulting in increased weight and decreased exercise. When our weight increases and we have decreased exercise tolerance, the health-related heart risk factors can develop or worsen: Our blood pressure increases, cholesterol increases and the risk of developing diabetes increases.
Obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes are the leading risk factors for developing heart and cerebral vascular disease, such as a heart attack and stroke. Women of all ages are at risk, even those who still have not undergone menopause. If a woman is postmenopausal, then her risk is greater.
Knowing my family history with heart disease allowed me to take control of my health. At my annual physical two years ago, I told my doctor about my 81-year-old mother’s recent aortic valve replacement. I explained that she had a congenital aortic bicuspid valve, and I have aunts and uncles who had mitral valve prolapse issues. I already knew I had a heart murmur, but my doctor suggested that I see a cardiologist to rule out any additional issues, given my family history.
I am an extremely healthy guy with a lot of energy. I had worked for the same employer for 23 years and never took a sick day. So I wasn’t too worried about getting checked out.
However, an echocardiogram showed that I had a congenital bicuspid aortic valve, just like my mother. It was a complete shock, especially because I felt terrific. My local cardiologist said that mine had progressed into aortic stenosis, where my aortic valve was not fully opening and was decreasing blood flow from my heart. She told me that open heart surgery was a matter of when not if.
Many patients leave a lasting impression on me, but there are two patients in particular who really inspire me. It’s a husband and wife: He’s 91 years old, and she’s 89.
Even though they’re at an age when a lot of people are unable to live independently, they’re still living at home. They basically take care of themselves. They’re still mentally sound, and even though they need walkers, they’re able to get out and get around. They go grocery shopping together. She still cooks dinner every night, and he does the dishes.
It’s something you don’t see very often. Thanks to modern medicine, people are living longer, but a great many of my older patients are in nursing homes or are dependent on their children because their age or illnesses have left them unable to fully care for themselves.
Renowned heart specialist and Rush Medical College graduate James B. Herrick, MD, was instrumental in securing the equipment through a gift from Mrs. Cyrus McCormick, Sr., a noted Chicago philanthropist.
She also helped the hospital acquire an improved model in 1915 and provided substantial funding for research in heart disease.
According to the 1939 issue of the Presbyterian Hospital Bulletin, “It was with the aid of these instruments that Dr. Herrick made his first notable discoveries about coronary thrombosis and started on the trail which has brought fame to himself and immeasurable benefit to humanity.”