Carolyn Thomas from Victoria, Canada, was out for a morning walk in 2008 when the 58-year-old felt “out of the blue” sick. Pain engulfed the center of her chest and radiated over her left arm. She was nauseous and sweaty.
The emergency room doctor ran a few heart tests, then told Thomas: “You are in the right demographic for acid reflux. Go home and see your family doctor for a prescription for antacids. ”
But regular antacids for a few weeks did nothing for her symptoms. Thomas the fire heartburn, has a lack of energy to walk, and felt as if she had parked a Mack truck on her chest.
Fearing she was dying, Thomas returned to the ER. It was then that she learned that the pain in her chest and arm pain was a widower. heart attack – 95 percent of one of her coronary arteries was blocked.
A Shock for the Heart
Thomas and everyone who knew her was shocked that she was serious coronary heart disease (CAD). She was fit, healthy and did not smoke. She discusses her case in her blog, Heart Sisters, about women and heart disease.
“The most common question,” says Thomas, “was ‘How could you, of all people, have a heart attack?'”
It seems her friends wanted to believe that Thomas, a distance runner for almost 20 years, had somehow brought the disease upon herself.
“The questioner needs reassurance that this bad thing will not happen to them, so they are looking for answers to confirm their unrealistic belief that bad things happen to other people, not to me,” says Thomas.
But those on the other end of the interrogation, she says, may feel unfairly judged.
Heart attacks can happen to people who feel and look healthy. Most people with coronary heart disease have one or more risk factors, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure, and otherwise feel good. But a small number do not have any of the typical risk factors, says Deepak L. Bhatt, MD, executive director of interventional cardiovascular programs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital Heart & Vascular Center in Boston.
Thomas wonders if people would rather believe that she had a heart attack because she smoked or had diabetes. “It could mean that my heart disease was self-inflicted,” she says.
Two years after her heart attack, Thomas discovered that she did have something that increased her chances of heart disease: a history of dangerously high blood pressure (preeclampsia) during pregnancy. Early menopause and polycystic ovary syndrome are also risk factors. These things are unavoidable and “certainly not self-inflicted,” says Thomas.
Thomas says even though a classic risk factor such as obesity leads to heart disease, there is still no justification for judgmental attitudes.
“Blaming the patient is an attempt to reinforce the belief that this diagnosis can never affect me or my family,” she says.
Why heart disease does not get enough love
You’ve probably heard that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But Thomas says there is a shocking awareness of heart disease, even though more women are dying from it in the US than from all forms of cancer combined.
“Breast cancer is widely regarded as a tragic diagnosis that attacks the innocent out of the blue,” says Thomas. But heart disease remains misunderstood.
One Heart Sisters blog reader remembers a conversation between co-workers after her own heart attack:
“They talked about breast cancer awareness. I said it was a worthy cause, but did they know that heart disease is actually the no. 1 is a killer of women? And one woman answered, ‘Yes, but you bring it upon yourself. If you take care of yourself, you will not have a heart problem! “
Bhatt, the Brigham and Women’s doctor, is not surprised. “If patients have cancer, it is very rare for people to blame them for their illness. There is a bit more blame that tends to happen with heart disease because the typical risk factors are widely known.
Escape the “Judgment Zone”
Thomas says it is human nature for family, friends and co-workers to express curiosity about major events. One way she handles the potential for too many nose questions is to choose her listeners carefully. People you expect will be able to disappoint supportively. Or you might get sympathetic ears from the most unlikely places.
Ironically, your loved ones may not be the best listeners when you talk about them, because they may be too worried about you. “These people want and need to hear us say we are better now and to return to normal and that our frightening health crisis is over so they can relax,” says Thomas.
Thomas also says you can choose who you trust. If you are uncomfortable sharing, a generic response is fine. For example, say, “Thank you for asking. I’ll know more about it after my cardiologist follow-up appointment.”
One of Thomas’ Heart Sisters readers prefers to simply say, “I now have more questions than answers.”