The Mistake That Can “Break” A Woman’s Heart

Franciscan Health System’s campaign to save women’s lives doesn’t miss a beat

Every 60 seconds an American woman suffers a heart attack. Every 90 seconds another dies of heart disease. One out of every three 40-year-old women will have chest pains or a heart attack sometime during their lives. These figures, from a 2009 American Heart Association study, sound shocking. But even more shocking is the fact that many of our beloved mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and friends die unnecessarily, for the lack of a call to 9-1-1.

Franciscan Health System is partnering with the Federal Office on Women’s Health to avert such tragedies through an educational campaign called “Make the Call. Don’t Miss a Beat.” Despite increased publicity in recent years about the need for speed and how to recognize symptoms—which can differ from those men experience—women still don’t seem to think they are at risk.

Dr. Rosemary Peterson, a cardiologist with Franciscan, believes a range of factors, including denial and cultural expectations, explain why 79 percent of women surveyed said they would call 9-1-1 for someone else having a heart attack, but only 53 percent would call for themselves. “Women tend to be caretakers,” Peterson says. “They tend to be really busy taking care of everybody. Then there’s the ‘I don’t want to bother anybody.’” One patient, embarrassed by her messy house, cleaned it before calling 9-1-1.

Peterson says that 85 percent of muscle damage will take place within the first one to two hours. “We call that ‘the golden hour.’ If you can get to somebody within the hour you feel so lucky, because you can do a lot to save muscle. When the muscle is dead it doesn’t revive. Dead is dead.”

The most common symptom in both men and women is pain or discomfort in the chest. But women often experience less typical symptoms, such as pain in the back, neck, jaw, shoulders or arms; shortness of breath; nausea and vomiting; breaking out in a cold sweat; or unexplained fatigue—sometimes present for several days.

Carrie Rice remembers sitting in her doctor’s exam room one day in 1993 – when she was 54 years old and under a lot of stress – and worrying about sounding paranoid. There because of a stubborn respiratory infection, she decided to tell the doctor about the “funny feeling” in her chest—not severe or crushing pain.

“It was a pulsing sensation,” Rice said. “It would start under my breast bone and radiate out evenly in all directions. And when it got to my elbows, ears and belly button, it would stop.” It turned out that the artery on the left side of her heart had a 75 percent blockage. She feels lucky to be alive today at age 72, because she spoke up. If it happened again, she would call 9-1-1.

Peterson’s most important message to women is, “If something doesn’t feel right, you need to get it checked out. Call 9-1-1.” For more information, visit stjosephheart.org, where you will see the campaign’s logo: “Make the Call. Don’t Miss a Beat.”

Candace Brown