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Denying the Signs

The first sign that something was wrong happened a full month before Carolyn Thomas was diagnosed as having a heart attack.

She was on her regular 30 minute walk to work, “I had to stop and catch my breath after climbing a small hill,” she says. And then the next day, at the same spot, the same thing happened. But the 58-year-old who power walked for an hour every morning before walking to work was not worried. “I just thought I needed to work out more!”

One week later, during her morning power walk, Carolyn was hit by

Carolyn's Mother: Joan Zaruk, Carolyn Thomas, and Carolyn's daughter: Larissa Thomas.  Photo taken two days before Carolyn's heart attack.
a crushing chest pain, nausea, sweating and pain in her left arm. The classic signs of a heart attack. This time she was worried. Not wanting to bother anyone, she rested for a half hour before walking at a snail’s pace home, and calling a friend to take her to the hospital.

In the emergency room, staff moved quickly when Carolyn told them what happened. After a treadmill stress test, blood tests and E.K.G, though, Carolyn was told she was fine. The tests turned up nothing alarming. “I was told to follow up with my family doctor,” she says. She left feeling very embarrassed. 

She scheduled an appointment with her family doctor two weeks later.

During the following two weeks, Carolyn experienced more attacks. The first was three days after her visit to the E.R., after running up some stairs. Then it happened again two days later. “I kept having the attacks more frequently and as a result of less exertion,” she says. But Carolyn did not worry too much because she had been told her heart was fine, and proceeded with a trip to Ottawa.

It was on the plane ride home that Carolyn started to feel very awful. “I would have an attack getting up from my seat,” she says. And even with the pain becoming unbearable, Carolyn did not complain to the flight staff. “I didn’t want to be that person who turns the plane around. I was worried that it would turn out to be nothing again.”

Amazingly Carolyn made it home and decided to wait until morning, to go to Emergency.

This time test results showed that she was having a heart attack. She was told by the cardiologist that she had significant heart disease and one of her arteries had a 95 per cent blockage. She went straight to surgery and was given angioplasty and had a stent implanted in her left anterior descending coronary artery.

The big question in Carolyn’s mind was, “If I have significant heart disease, why was I told I was fine two weeks ago?”

There is no easy answer to her question. The reality is that when it comes to heart disease, women are treated differently than men and have worse outcomes than men. It is because of stories like Carolyn’s that the Heart and Stroke Foundation began The Heart Truth Campaign. The campaign is designed to educate women on the risk factors, warning signs and rates of heart disease in women.

“Before I had my heart attack I didn’t know that heart disease and stroke are the leading cause of death of Canadian women,” says Carolyn.

And she didn’t worry about heart disease herself because Carolyn was the picture of health. She walked at least an hour a day, had been on blood pressure medication her whole adult life, ate healthy food, and had a regular annual checkup with her doctor.

What Carolyn has learned about heart disease is that often it is 20 to 30 years in the making. The best way to combat heart disease is to be aware of your risk factors, and recognize the warning signs and get treatment quickly. To learn more about this visit www.thehearttruth.ca.

Carolyn adds, “If you think something is wrong, go to Emergency right away.”

Since her heart attack Carolyn has revamped her eating habits and has successfully lowered her cholesterol by two points. She now blogs about issues around women and heart disease at www.myheartsisters.org.