On Your Health

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Raising Awareness for Heart Disease in Women

At age 33, Latricia Damico of Piedmont didn’t think she was having a heart attack. She knew she had a family history of heart issues and struggled with high blood pressure, but she never thought the sharp nagging pain in her left shoulder blade was a sign that something was wrong with her heart.

When the pain got too bad to ignore, she finally went to the ER and discovered she had a heart attack often referred to as “the Widowmaker,” which occurs when a blood clot completely blocks the left anterior descending artery around the heart.

Heart Disease in Women

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., killing 300,000 women in 2017 — or about one in every five female deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About one in 16 women over the age of 20 will have coronary heart disease, yet many women don’t know their own risk factors.

Latricia was one of those women. Her mother died at age 54 from a heart attack. But until it happened to her, she never expected to suffer a heart attack herself at such a young age.

“Anyone is at risk, no matter what your age is or how much you weigh, especially if you have a family history of it,” she says. “You have to take it seriously.”

February is American Heart Month, an event to remind Americans to focus on their hearts and encourage them to get their families, friends and communities involved. Because women sometimes have misleading symptoms, it’s especially important for them to be aware.

Before Latricia’s Heart Attack

In 2016, Latricia and her husband were trying to have a baby. As someone who has struggled with weight, she knew her blood pressure could be a problem.

“I have had high blood pressure since my 20s, and since my mom died from a heart attack, my OB-GYN suggested I work with a cardiologist,” she says.

Latricia visited INTEGRIS cardiologist Dr. Aleicia Mack to address her high blood pressure and to reduce the risk of problems during her pregnancy like preeclampsia. 

“I was working with Dr. Mack to control my blood pressure, but when I got pregnant I had to change my medications to a pregnancy-friendly medication that didn’t work as well,” Latricia says. “I had to stay with the medication that wasn’t working as well when I was nursing, too. I struggled with it.”

In spring 2017, shortly after the birth of her daughter Ainsley, Latricia began feeling short of breath, tired all the time and generally not well. She thought it was her weight that was causing the symptoms until she began to get shoulder pain.

“I thought it was a pinched nerve. That’s what it felt like,” she says. “It was in my left shoulder blade. I also started getting sensitivity to heat, and I dealt with that all summer. The pains came more often, and at the end of July, it was worse and took my breath away.”

Latricia knew something was wrong but she never guessed she was having symptoms of a cardiac event. She visited her family doctor’s office, but the physician assistant couldn’t find anything wrong with her shoulder.

Latricia’s Life-changing Experience

Two weeks after that visit, Latricia had started her new job when the pain returned at its worst level yet. Latricia’s coworkers convinced her to go to the ER, even though she was embarrassed to have such a dramatic response to what she thought was a pinched nerve.

“I didn’t want to go, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer. They saved my life. The doctors in the ER did an ultrasound on my shoulder but didn’t find anything, so they did blood work, and then suddenly there was a whole team of doctors around me, including Dr. Mack,” she says. “The blood work showed I had a heart attack, the one they call the Widowmaker. I was shocked. I didn’t know what to think.”

Latricia survived her heart attack and spent several days at the INTEGRIS Advanced Cardiac Care and then began cardiac rehab.

“I started digging into my family history and realized I had a big risk for heart issues,” she says. “I had no idea what it meant to have a heart attack. I thought it would be chest pains.”

Putting Her Health First

For months, Latricia learned about healthy eating, exercise and heart health at cardiac rehab. She had to make major changes to her nutrition and diet and learned how to exercise more.

"Most people think they know what is healthy to eat, but they don't – myself included. During cardiac rehab I had to do the Pritikin Diet, which is a low-fat, low-sodium, no sugar, plant-based diet. I could have some fish and chicken, but no red meat," she says. "But I was open to it. I have a daughter now. My mother passed away when I was young, so I don’t want my child to lose her mother at a young age. She is my motivation."

Today, Latricia still continues to work closely with Dr. Mack on her heart health, and she says her lifestyle changes have made a world of difference.

“I feel better than I ever have. My blood pressure is steady, my cholesterol levels are great and I eat clean. Everything is different now,” she says. “You must advocate for your own health. I was embarrassed to say anything, even though I knew something was wrong. Women need to be more proactive for their health.”

Taking Control of Women’s Heart Health

The American Heart Association recommends that women check their blood pressure and cholesterol regularly and make healthy lifestyle choices like stopping smoking, eating healthy and exercising.   

“If you have a family history of heart disease or high blood pressure, you need to take it seriously,” says Latricia. “It’s important to make changes and take control of your health.”

Chest pain is still the most common sign of a heart attack for most women. Below are some common warning signs of a heart attack in both men and women.

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain the center of the chest.
  • Pain radiating to the neck, shoulder, back, jaw or arms.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Cold, clammy sweats.
  • Nausea, heartburn, vomiting or abdominal pain.

The scary thing about a women’s heart attack is that it often doesn't come with chest pain. Studies have shown that women are more likely than men to have symptoms other than chest discomfort when experiencing a heart attack. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, between 30-37 percent of women did not have chest pain at all. 

Some of the subtler signs of a heart attack could start weeks ahead of time for women. They are more likely than men to report pain in the middle or upper back, neck, or jaw; shortness of breath; indigestion, nausea, vomiting or loss of appetite; and sudden onset of weakness. Other warning signs more common for women include:

  • An overall feeling of illness, with no chest pain.
  • Unusual fatigue.
  • Dizziness and fainting.
  • Sleep disturbance.

Remember, each heart is unique. If you are worried about a potential heart-related issue, getting evaluated by a physician is always a smart precaution. Find an INTEGRIS hospital near you to make an appointment.

Doctor Oklahoma Podcast- Episode 8: Heart Care

Cardiologist Jered Cook, M.D. is talking all things heart. You’ll learn about heart disease, common heart issues and symptoms. We also discuss differences in heart care between men and women, as well as when you should get help for a potential issue.