Women less likely to recognize heart attack symptoms

By Katie Demeria

Friday was National Wear Red Day, and many medical professionals at local hospitals wore red over their scrubs in order to help raise awareness for women’s heart health as part of an ongoing attempt to increase heart education throughout the area.

According to a Winchester Medical Center heart health awareness campaign, heart disease kills more women than men each year. For women, it is more deadly than all forms of cancer.

When Sharon Snapp of Front Royal experienced pain in her chest, she was ready to dismiss it as indigestion. If her husband had not insisted on calling 911, she may not have reached the hospital in time for physicians to save her life.

And, according to Dr. James Freilich of Warren Memorial Hospital, this is a trend among women.

“Women aren’t as likely to call 911,” he said. “It may be because they are more likely to take care of other people before they are themselves.”

Snapp said she doubted she was having a heart attack during the ride to the hospital. Once at Winchester Medical Center, they wheeled her up to the surgical table and she attempted to maneuver herself onto it.

“They started yelling at me, ‘Don’t move! Don’t move!’ because I guess it was more serious than I thought,” Snapp said.

Not only are women less likely to recognize symptoms in themselves, they are even less likely to have those usual symptoms, according to Freilich.

The typical signs of a heart attack, he continued, include pain in the chest that spreads to the jaw, throat, back and arms. It could also include weakness, nausea or heartburn.

Snapp’s pain was in one concentrated area. She had no other symptoms.

As an active woman who bikes regularly, Snapp’s heart should actually have been better prepared to deal with trouble, Freilich said.

“It should have been used to more blood flow on a regular basis,” he said.

But Snapp’s healthy lifestyle did not prevent four vessels in her heart from becoming blocked. According to Kayla Roberts, chest pain coordinator at Winchester Medical Center, Snapp was experiencing “very dangerous blockage.”

One reason patients may underestimate the seriousness of a heart attack, Frielich said, is that it is not something they quite understand.

“Anyone can imagine how they are going to die from some external source,” he said. “But it’s harder to seriously consider something internal killing us.”

Heart attacks occur, he continued, when a vessel that feeds blood to the heart is blocked. Though the heart pumps blood to other areas in the body, it does not benefit from that flow — it needs separate vessels all its own.

“And when that blockage occurs, the muscle starts dying,” Frielich continued. “Dead heart muscle does not recover. That’s why it’s so important to take the symptoms seriously and get the right care.”

Valley Health will be hosting heart attack risk screenings throughout February. Those interested in signing up can go to www.valleyhealthlink.com/harp to register.