Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of American women. One out of every four women will die of it each year, more than 250,000 from heart attacks alone. Yet, stop a woman on the street and she is unlikely to list heart disease as a concern. Likewise, few realize that more women than men die of heart disease or that signs and symptoms in women can be subtle—nearly two-thirds of women who die suddenly of a heart attack had no prior symptoms. Additionally, women with heart disease are often misdiagnosed or under treated. Those who are correctly diagnosed often feel isolated and confused.
But the outlook is improving, thanks to WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease. The organization includes thousands of women heart patients and their families, physicians, health advocates, and others committed to helping women live longer, healthier lives. WomenHeart's mission is the advancement of women's heart health through advocacy, education, and support networks. Finally, women with heart disease and their loved ones have a voice—and a place to turn.
At 41, Rhonda Monroe isn't shy about dispensing advice. The Washington, D.C. native recently overheard a diner lamenting that he shouldn't be eating a meal he had ordered because he had diabetes. "I told him I had three heart attacks and eight surgeries. He's looking at me like, 'You had that?' I told him, 'I did. So you have to take care of your health.'" No matter where it's delivered, Monroe's story commands attention. It began when she was 36, five days after she'd given birth to her third child. She had just finished breast feeding the baby when "the elephant sat on my chest." An ambulance transported Monroe to the emergency room where she was diagnosed as "an anxious new mother" and sent home with painkillers. Monroe knew she was having a heart attack and kept returning until someone listened. On day seven, someone did, and Monroe was rushed into bypass surgery; five arteries in her heart had torn. Still, her nightmare didn't end; she underwent a repeat bypass along with numerous other procedures. Monroe, who enjoys writing, began sharing her story publicly, as poetry, in 2005. A member of WomenHeart heard and soon after Monroe attended WomenHeart's annual Science and Leadership Symposium at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. She now shares her story at shelters, churches, and universities, and hopes to pen a memoir. "I got lemons," she says. "I'm making lemonade."
Carol Allred awoke five years ago to a strange feeling: she was overly tired and had severe pain across her back and shoulders. Then 60, Allred attributed her symptoms to the previous day's activities, which involved traveling and celebrating her grandson's birthday. As the day progressed, Allred experienced shortness of breath, but assumed it was triggered by allergies. Eventually, she visited the emergency room where she was told she was having a heart attack. "Because I hadn't understood what was happening quickly enough I had some pretty serious damage," she recalls. Allred suffered damage to her left ventricle and spent six months in and out of the hospital. She underwent surgeries to implant a defibrillator and a stent, a mesh tube designed to prop open an artery. One day, she received a newsletter from the defibrillator manufacturer and discovered a link to WomenHeart. "I read the site and said, ‘This is what I've been looking for.'" Today, despite taking 10 medicines, Allred is doing well. "I know I will always have impairment, but my overall health is good and I think the good Lord knows I have a mission here." Allred describes WomenHeart as her passion and the women she has met through the Science and Leadership Symposium as "sisters." She is president of the organization's board of directors and speaks regularly to women with heart disease, both in her home state of Texas and beyond. "Numerous times someone has contacted me after I've spoken and said, ‘Thank you for saving my life.'"