Take It to Heart: The Real Deal On Women and Heart Disease
By Pamela Serure
As best as my current cardiologist can figure it, I had undiagnosed rheumatic fever as a very small child! When I was two, I was diagnosed with a heart murmur. It scared my parents crazy, but since it didn't impinge on any of my activities, all they could do was watch and wait.
At age nine, I started having chest pains, so they took me to a pediatric cardiologist, whose diagnosis was mitral valve regurgitation. My growth spurt was taxing my muscles and my heart, causing "growing pains." However, the doctor decided that I didn't need any meds or surgical repair. So I basically forgot that I had a valve problem and went on to lead a busy life.
Then during my thirties, I started slowing down. I'd have trouble breathing if I ran up a flight of stairs. I had bouts of bronchitis and a hacking cough (even though I'd never smoked). Sometimes I even had heart palpitations. But I attributed these symptoms to high stress and lack of exercise. Anyway, I was too busy at work to deal with doctors, and I felt okay generally. So I continued to push my way through, ignoring how I felt. When I turned forty-four, it finally dawned on me that something was really wrong, and at long last, many months, if not years, after I should have, I scheduled a heart exam.
I went on my lunch hour to have the EKG. It was supposed to be a baseline check. I knew I had a heart murmur, but my doctor wasn't worried. "We'll just check this out as a precaution," he said, "and then I'll refer you to an allergist to see what's causing your wheezing."
The technician was real chatty as he examined the left side of my heart, but he completely stopped talking when he switched sides. He became so upset by what he saw that he literally ran out of the room to get the cardiologist. Meanwhile, I was starting to get annoyed at how long things were taking.
Soon the cardiologist, a nerdy-looking young fellow, came in, looked at the tape, listened to my heart, and broke the news without an ounce of sensitivity. "You've got a leaky valve and it needs replacement. You'll have to have open-heart surgery very soon." I nearly laughed out loud! I had visions of "cracking open the hood," like when your car overhears and you have to pull over by the side of the freeway. I was so surprised that I practically shouted, "You're kidding!" In all seriousness, he replied, "I wouldn't kid about a thing like that." Much later, he apologized, admitting to me that he was so thrown by seeing a walk-in patient in as bad shape as I was that he just said the first thing that came into his head.
When I returned to my office after the exam, I checked in with my boss. She asked me how the test had gone and I said, "Not very well, actually. I have a leaky heart valve and it needs to be replaced. I'll have to have open-heart surgery." She blurted, "You're kidding!" and I broke out into hysterical laughter. "That's what I said," I told her.
Long story short: my open-heart surgery was successful and I got a bionic-valve replacement. I have to take Coumadin (a blood thinner) for the rest of my life, and it's been a bit of a roller-coaster ride getting the balance of meds just right. But I recently celebrated the four-year anniversary of my surgery, and I feel great! I feel so grateful to the many people who helped me along the way. I'm so happy to be alive.
What was my body trying to tell me, anyway? Most likely, it was a call to slow down after having just completed a worldwide book tour and a move from the East Coast to the West. You think? But to me, admitting that I was exhausted at this point in my life was not an option. I never knew what would follow that act. It felt far too vulnerable. It felt like I was failing at being me, the only job I'd ever taken seriously. And after years of defending my life and the way I chose to live it, that would have been the white flag of surrender. It wasn't time yet for that, or so I thought. In truth, the white flag had already raised itself; I had no choice in the matter. I was too tired to keep denying it.
So in time, I caved in. I couldn't ignore this "not right" feeling any longer; I had to see a doctor. At least I found a great one. Dr. Jesse Hanley is a renowned specialist on menopause-which was perfect for my condition. She came out to greet me wearing cowboy boots and a pink-and-turquoise skirt, almost a mini. Wow, L.A. never disappoints! As I barreled through my list of ailments, Dr. Hanley was totally absorbed. It was as if I were a storyteller and she were waiting for a particular ending. The visit was magical. She was real, she listened, and she spoke in a language designed for women's ears-soft, direct, smart, and caring. She was a women's doctor for sure.