Lois Randall was 50 when she started getting strange pains shooting into her jaw and neck. Although she was a nurse, the Miami resident refused to see a doctor and instead popped aspirin.
She eventually did see a cardiologist, who informed her she had suffered a “silent heart attack.”
Randall, who had just lost her father during a triple bypass operation, left the cardiologist’s office and promptly stuck her head in the sand, where it remained for 12 years — until she suffered a mini-stroke at work one day. At that point, Randall finally got a stress test, which she flunked, and a catheterization.
Doctors at Baptist Hospital refused to let her leave the hospital and she spent the next 14 days there undergoing triple bypass surgery and having holes poked in her heart to stimulate growth. It took three years for Randall to fully recover.
Now 67 and a law firm secretarial and training coordinator, Randall tells female friends not to ignore what could be a heart attack coming in the form of dizziness, jaw pain or even back pain.
“I say, ‘Don’t trivialize anything that doesn’t feel normal for you,’ ” she said. “See a doctor as soon as you can.”
Randall’s story is not unusual. The American Heart Association, doctors and women’s health advocates have been trying to get out the message that heart disease is now the No. 1 killer of women, killing more women than all types of cancer combined.
They are also trying to educate the public — and physicians — that heart attack symptoms can be different for women. While men usually experience the “elephant sitting on your chest” syndrome, women can experience a variety of other symptoms, such as dizziness, nausea, neck and jaw pain, shortness of breath and extreme fatigue.
“Twenty years ago, people didn’t recognize that while there are differences between men and women’s physiology, there are differences with their hearts as well,” said Dr. Jonathan Roberts of Baptist Hospital. “We are trying to raise awareness in the community and with physicians that heart disease in women can be different than heart disease in men.”
For this reason, Baptist Hospital, like many other hospitals, now does a special blood test that detects heart disease as well as an electrocardiogram (EKG) on most women who come to the emergency room with non-specific symptoms, Roberts said.
“It’s become standard,” he said. “Twenty years ago, more women than men were sent home with these non-specific symptoms. Now, we look further.”
The American Heart Assocation has been trying to raise awareness of heart disease and women for a decade, starting its Go Red For Women campaign in 2003. The campaign asks women around the country to wear red every Feb. 1 to draw attention to the issue. According to the association, 627,000 lives have been saved as a result of the campaign and 330 fewer women are dying per day.
In addition to educating women on how to recognize heart attack symptoms, the medical community is also trying to teach women how to prevent heart disease in the first place, by avoiding smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, an unhealthy diet and excessive stress. The growing obesity crisis in the United States is fueling a rise in diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease, all of which are starting at alarmingly early ages.