Women’s Heart Health Month

Women’s Heart Health Month

February is Women’s Heart Health month. I’m a heart transplant patient. I thought it was only fitting to launch my blog with a post on the subject. It’s a topic that affects me personally, having lived with a chronic heart condition for 16 years. If there is anything I can do to help other women prevent or cope with heart disease by sharing my own experiences and provide resources, I’m glad to do so.

I was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, or an enlarged heart, in late 1999, when I was 28 years old. A cold virus attacked my heart tissue and damaged it irreparably. I was living and working in San Francisco, doing my best to raise my 6-year-old son on my own. At the time, my financial circumstances caused much worry and stress in my life that in turn affected my health and well being. In the weeks leading up to my diagnosis, I caught a cold that persisted, despite my attempts to fight it off. I had also been suffering from depression, though I told no one and didn’t seek treatment because of the stigma I associated with it back then. My doctors would probably disagree, but I believe that all of these factors contributed to my getting sick. To me, it was a perfect storm of conditions that made me vulnerable to a catastrophic illness. My mind, body, and spirit were out of sync and ailing.

Fortunately for me, I was initially diagnosed and treated for congestive heart failure at UCSF Medical Center, by Dr. Teresa DeMarco, Director of Advanced Heart Failure and Pulmonary Hypertension and Medical Director of Heart Transplantation. Nine years later, in the summer of 2008, I underwent a successful heart transplant by the same team of talented doctors, nurses and staff. It is because of their expertise and care that I am alive today.

I’ve asked a member of Dr. DeMarco’s team, in the spirit of bringing awareness to Women’s Heart Health month, to answer a few questions regarding the treatment of women with heart disease and the differences between men and women’s heart health, attitudes, and recovery, based on her years of experience working with heart transplant patients, in particular.

Q: Please state your name, title, and years of experience working in the heart transplant clinic at UCSF.
A: Anne Fukano RN, Post Heart Transplant Coordinator, started at UCSF in 1981.

Q: Approximately how many women does your clinic treat?
A: In our Heart Transplant Clinic, we see an average of 8-10 women per week, a combination of new patients and follow-up or returning patients.

Q: What is the success rate of women patients post-transplant compared to men?
A: Survival rates are about the same, but we take care of significantly more men than women. You can also check the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation (ISHLT) and Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients (SRTR) because they track survival rates. (1)

Q. What are the main differences (if any) between women’s post-operative success versus men?
A: Not much difference, the key issue in both women and men are having a good support system and people.

Q: Are there any noticeable traits or factors that contribute to these differences?
A: Patients who take responsibility for their care and are active participants in their care do better than those who don’t.

Q: How does a patient’s attitude toward their recovery contribute to their overall health and longevity?
A: Both the patient’s and support person’s attitude is key in recovery and long-term success.

Q: What advice would you give women who are diagnosed with congestive heart failure or who are at risk for such a diagnosis?
A: Do not ignore symptoms and maintain follow-ups with medical doctors.

My heart condition is not a common ailment for most people, including women. However, I lived for 9 years with the underlying fear that someday, my heart would fail and I would have to undergo an expensive and risky surgery and treatment. I also understood that my survival was not guaranteed, whether I made it to transplant or not. Trust me when I say that having a heart attack is a painful and traumatic ordeal. Speaking from my own experience, it’s terrifying, as the realization that you may not survive flashes through your mind while you suffer tremendous pain. Living with heart disease is no fun either, but those of us who do have choices we can make everyday to make the experience less debilitating. Let’s not forget that heart disease is the number one killer of women in our country. If we don’t take control of our health and that of our families, no one will.

I wholeheartedly recommend checking out the American Heart Association website, which is a great resource for all heart-related information on prevention and disease. If you’re interested in recognizing the warning signs of a heart attack, want to learn more about their Go Red for Women campaign, take a CPR class, or would like some tips on healthy living, you can begin your search there. Researching this post, I was very impressed by the wealth of information offered at the site.

There’s more to raising awareness of women’s heart health than wearing the color red. It is important to understand the symptoms of heart disease early and taking the necessary steps to prevent and control the onset of a heart condition whenever possible. We only have one life, and it gets shorter with every year that passes. Why shouldn’t we do what we can to prevent illness and live our lives to the fullest and in the best possible health?

1. The ISHLT records survival rates 1 year after and 3 years after transplant, as over 80%.
2. One-year survival in patients who underwent heart transplant from 2006 through 2008 was 88.1%; 3-year survival was 81.3% and 5-year survival 75.3%. Survival was slightly lower for women, particularly after year 3 post-transplant. OPTN/SRTR 2013 Annual Data Report: Heart. American Journal of Transplantation, Vol. 15, No. Suppl 2, January 2015, pp. 1-28.


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