There is no denying the statistics. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, claiming more lives than all forms of cancer combined. But the news isn’t all grim. It’s estimated that 80 percent of cases are preventable and/or treatable. Cue The WomenHeart Support Network of Parkview Heart Institute. This organization serves as an impressive vehicle for education and encouragement, facilitated by a group of trained and compassionate Champions. But who are these brave representatives?
“Choosing our WomenHeart Champions was pretty challenging,” Parkview Heart Institute Program Coordinator Leah Felger said. “They have some clear criteria that includes a timeframe related to diagnosis and heart ‘event,’ they require a lengthy application, a doctor’s release, reference letter and an interview. I asked for physician recommendations and screened several patients. I then made multiple phone calls to present the opportunity. All of our Champions recognized the call to serve.”
Four women. Four journeys. One amazing program.
Susan Smallwood, Champion since 2014
“During a yearly checkup with my allergist, the physician discovered I had developed a heart murmur and suggested I see my family doctor soon. I had an initial appointment with Dr. Presti, which led to further testing and a diagnosis of Mitral Valve Prolapse. I was prescribed a low dosage of Toprol XL and continued to see my doctor yearly for an echo and update on any symptoms.
After about 8 years of nothing changing – no symptoms, no change in echo, same prescription dosage – and at a very busy time of my life, I just didn't return for the annual visit and stopped taking my medicine. About 18 months later, lots of symptoms appeared; I was severely short of breath and experienced exhaustion after an hour of exercising. I would come home and take at least a 3-hour nap and once a 7-hour nap! I needed to use the bathroom 5 or 6 times a night and my abdomen was swelling during the day. Needless to say, I called the doctor's office.
Within 3 weeks, I had an echo, TEE, cath and an 8.5-hour surgery to replace my mitral valve. Three months later, I was well enough to travel to Houston to see my new grandchild! My advice: Never stop taking medicine without consulting your physician. And, no matter how busy you are, take time for yourself. Do the necessary things for your health, like yearly physician visits. Thankfully, I have another chance to do it right.”
Cindy Morphett, Champion since 2014
“In 2012, I was working a manager in the healthcare setting, a position I held for 45 years. Being in leadership, I viewed stress as something I should be able to handle, all the while not really realizing what effect that was having on my body, especially my heart. Others, however, reminded me that I was headed toward a stroke if I didn’t start paying attention to my body’s warning signs. Recognizing the risk and that heart issues were prominent in my family, I retired. I felt that I should ‘get healthy’ (i.e. eat healthy, exercise, medical check-up and get the appropriate screening for heart health).
I scheduled a heart scan, as I had never had one, even though it was readily available to me. I was waiting for the scan to begin when the techs told me my heart rate was too high to perform the test and I was in atrial fibrillation! I didn’t even know what that was, and certainly didn’t recognize the symptoms. I was totally unaware; but once I started thinking about it, there were countless times at work I’d written signs off as ‘stress’.
And so, my personal heart journey began that day when they sent me to the emergency room. Now, it was up to me to learn all I could about this condition. I taught myself to recognize when I was in AFib, which occurred every 10 days and lasted a minimum of 48 hours. Of course, one of the scariest things that I learned was that AFib is a leading cause of strokes. Imagine that; I had all of the symptoms and didn’t recognize them! Over the next year, I was prescribed medications (blood thinner, statins and an arrhythmic drug), received an ablation and a pacemaker. You see, once you’re diagnosed with heart disease, you will always have heart disease.
Then came the opportunity to become a WomenHeart Champion through Parkview Heart Institute. As a support network coordinator candidate, I attended the WomenHeart Science and Leadership Symposium at the Mayo Clinic in October 2014. There, as a woman living with atrial fibrillation and at risk for additional heart disease, I was trained to use my survivorship as a tool to educate, support, and advocate for the women in my community. Here I was, having worked in healthcare for 40+ years, learning for the first time that more women die of heart disease than any other health issue, and that even high blood pressure is considered heart disease, and that women’s symptoms are different than men’s, and that women tend to feel overwhelmed, depressed and anxious about their future once diagnosed or having suffered a life-changing heart event. If I could help educate and support women with heart disease, I wanted to do that.”
Allison Blust, Champion since 2015
“I was diagnosed in July 2014, two weeks after my 25th birthday and a little over a month after my wedding. My husband and I were going to a NASCAR race in Indianapolis when I started feeling short of breath, tired and developed a cough. I thought I might have bronchitis. When we came home, my mom and husband urged me to get checked out. We went to the walk-in clinic and they hooked me up to an EKG, which measures the electrical activity of the heart. Mine was beating at 130, which is elevated for a resting heart beat. They sent me to the ER where I received an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart), and they admitted me to Parkview Heart Institute.
My diagnosis was Myocarditis – an enlarged heart muscle – and Cardiomyopathy, which means that my heart doesn’t pump as well as it should. The pumping action is called the ejection fraction, and it is measured by an echocardiogram. My ejection fraction in the hospital was 15-20%, compared to 55-75% for the average person. Doctors determined that most likely a virus had attacked my heart and triggered my symptoms. Before being discharged, I was fitted with an external cardiac defibrillator since I was at risk for sudden cardiac arrest, placed on a low sodium diet, given new medications and instructions to rest and exercise.
Three months later, at my first echo since the hospital, we learned that my heart hadn’t improved. I was so disappointed. After a second echo in January showed I still hadn’t improved, doctors recommended I have surgery to get an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD). I had mixed emotions about the procedure. I was happy to not have to wear the life vest anymore, but very nervous about the surgery and the permanence of the device. The deciding factor was that if I went into sudden cardiac arrest, the device would shock me to save my life. As of June 2015 my ejection fraction has improved to 35% and, although I’m still not ‘cured’ and have a long journey ahead, I am thankfully back to work full time and have a wonderful life with my husband. I am so grateful to my family, friends, and for the amazing care I’ve received at Parkview.
I was invited to be a part of a WomenHeart focus group and at the end, I was told about a support group for women with heart disease. I went to the next meeting and was overwhelmed by the support I received from the other women. The two leaders, Cindy and Susie, were so great leading us, getting good speakers and making a space where we felt comfortable enough to share our stories. I was always interested in being a part of the bigger picture, so when Leah [Felger, Parkview Heart Institute Program Coordinator] asked me to apply to become a WomenHeart Champion, I quickly agreed. I am passionate about educating women, especially young women, about heart disease. It is the leading cause of death for our gender; responsible for 1/3 of all deaths among U.S. women. WomenHeart is the nation’s first and only patient-centered organization serving the 42 million women living with or at risk of heart disease.
In October, I traveled with Dianne [Geeting, fellow Champion] to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for the Science and Leadership Symposium. This is all possible through WomenHeart’s National Hospital Alliance, which partners with hospitals committed to gender-specific healthcare and offers free patient support services and education. We spent 4 days with 62 other women learning about heart disease and how WomenHeart, as a national coalition, empowers us with education, support and training, to take charge of our heart health and advocate for others and ourselves.
At the symposium, the other Champions talked about many topics, but the one that stays with me is the difference between surviving and thriving. To survive means to remain alive. To thrive means to flourish or to grow vigorously. I know I am a heart disease survivor, but WomenHeart and the other WomenHeart Champions have taught me to be a heart disease thrivor!”
Dianne Geeting, Champion since 2015
“I’ve had asthma ever since I can remember. In my early 40s, I began having a hard time catching my breath and blamed it on my asthma. Then, as I was helping move my daughters into their college dorm room, I realized it was a different kind of ‘getting out of breath,’ often getting out of breath every time I walked fast, tried to run, walked up stairs or carried something. I called my doctor when I noticed an over-the-counter inhaler warned it could cause adverse heart conditions. My mom died of a heart attack when I was 38. My family doctor ran some tests and referred me to a cardiologist. I was devastated to find out I had an enlarged heart and Mitral Stenosis. My Cardiologist said I must have had Rheumatic Fever as a child.
I went to Boston to have a Valvuloplasty on my Mitral Valve. They opened it up with a balloon. Everything went well, except I developed Atrial Fibrillation. After about 12 years, in October 2001, I had to have my Mitral Valve replaced. During that open-heart surgery, the doctor also did a bypass of a coronary artery and a maze procedure to redirect the electrical current in my heart to help the Afib and a biopsy of a lymph node in my chest.
Almost a year later, in the recovery room after a Hysterectomy, I went into cardiac arrest. They used the defibrillator and rushed me to Parkview, where I received 5 stents. At that time, I received a pacemaker/defibrillator. I was also diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure (CHF).
Last year I was experiencing more symptoms of CHF. I thought it would be a simple fix of adjusting my meds, however my Aortic Valve was severely stenosed. After several tests and consultations, I had it replaced via the TAVR method (Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement). I had a successful TAVR in January 2015, and am doing fantastic.
I thank God and my doctors for the medicines that keep me going. I have been active and enjoying life. I have a husband, 7 children, 15 grandchildren and 5 great grandchildren. I’m involved in church groups and a part time job, so I stay very busy.
I think the WomenHeart program and Parkview's support of it are so important because I know how I felt. I was scared and upset after that initial diagnosis. But there’s so much hope out there and so many treatments. It’s not a death sentence. It’s the number 1 killer in women, but there is something to bring you through it. We aren’t just another statistic. It’s amazing that this program started with three women in the 90s and now it’s a huge organization. I am excited to encourage others to learn to develop good heart health habits. I want to be someone who will listen and let them know there are many of us who care and have gone through what they are going through; That there is hope and help.
As I mentioned before, I am thankful to God for putting me in the care of wonderful doctors, and for every beat of my heart and every breath I take.”
An open invitation.
“We hold monthly meetings the second Thursday of each month from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Parkview Center for Healthy Living on the north campus of Parkview Regional Medical Center (11123 Parkview Plaza Dr. entrance 2C suite 200). You can enjoy healthy snacks, educate yourself and make friends. We also plan to make rounds in the hospital to visit women heart patients and offer encouragement.” - Dianne
“If you are a woman living with heart disease, we would love to meet you and talk to you!” - Allison