In First Person
From Patient to Patient Advocate: Promoting Women’s Heart Health
By Marilyn Smedberg-Gobbett
WomenHeart National Spokesperson and Central Maryland Support Group Coordinator
Heart disease today is the number-one killer of women in this country. More people need to know and understand what this means. I once believed heart disease to be an “old man’s disease.” If I had understood sooner the reality of how heart disease affects women, maybe things would have turned out differently for me.
Forty years ago, as a young wife, mother and working woman, my priorities were to take care of others first. In retrospect, I should have taken my family history of cardiac disease more seriously and become more proactive about my health. My dad had his first heart attack at age 56 and died suddenly at 59, and my mother and her family had heart disease, arrhythmias and hypertension reaching back many generations. Needless to say, my family genes put me at risk.
In my late 20s, I developed supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), also known as rapid heart rate. The onset was sudden and would often end by itself. When it did not stop automatically, I found myself in the local emergency room having my heart forcibly stopped and restarted to get the rhythm back to normal. It was an uncomfortable situation, but I continued to live with it until an uncontrollable SVT event brought me to Howard County General Hospital in Columbia, Md., in 2003. Under the guidance of an electrophysiologist, I had a successful cardiac ablation in 2004 to correct the SVT.
Upon the original diagnosis of SVT in my 20s, my care team should have taken my heart disease more seriously and been more proactive in educating me about it. Education is one of the most critical components in health care. The more knowledge you have, the more you are able to avoid and control diseases. During the early years of uncontrolled SVT, I should have been sent to a specialist for treatment and not treated on an “as needed basis" when it was clear that the problem wasn’t going to go away without intervention.
As time went on, I had other procedures and tests. In 2005, I began to feel tired often. The feeling of tiredness did not go away; instead, it was accompanied by some pressure in the middle of my chest. When I went to the emergency room to be checked out, most of the tests came back normal. Based on my family’s and my own medical histories, my cardiologist wanted to do one more test – a cardiac catheterization – just to be sure that nothing more serious was occurring. The results came back, and doctors told me that I needed immediate bypass surgery to correct blockages in my coronary arteries. Six hours later, I was in an operating room at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore.
Then, in 2009, I started to experience tiredness once again. Another catheterization revealed that one of the bypass grafts was clogged and not functioning. The decision was made to put a stent into my blocked artery and treat me with medication. Today, I still struggle with unstable angina, and I feel it is important to embrace each day as a gift.
During my cardiac-care journey, I discovered WomenHeart, the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease. WomenHeart supports, educates and advocates for women's heart health. The group provides ongoing support to women living with or at risk of heart disease through its network of local chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada. Through our support networks and our WomenHeart Champions program, we participate in health fairs and expos, and we hold Lunch & Learn programs for businesses through our WomenHeart@Work Program. We look to speak to groups of all sizes about the importance of heart health. We’re also involved in policymaking; WomenHeart is bringing heart disease to the forefront of the public conversation with legislatures at the grassroots level, as well as at the national level.
As a non-profit organization, WomenHeart looks to other organizations and initiatives like the QIO Program for collaboration and support. Our more than 500 Champions throughout the U.S. and Canada help spread the word about heart disease through their own networks, including government, business, universities, medical facilities, faith-based organizations and social media channels. We’re also working with specific organizations and initiatives, such as Million HeartsTM and the "Make the Call. Don't Miss a Beat” campaign to help increase heart health awareness.
If we do a better job of sharing educational materials, as well as support, human, medical and media resources, we can empower people to take charge of their heart health and live longer, more productive lives.