Heart disease is the silent killer of Australian women. Every day, 22 women lose their lives from heart disease.
“If a man has a heart attack, he’s much more likely to survive that event,” heart and lung surgeon Dr Nikki Stamp tells Sunday Night’s Angela Cox.
Many women don’t see it coming until it’s too late. No woman is immune – even a former Olympian. After winning a swag of medals in the pool, Lisa Curry went on to conquer the physically demanding sport of outrigging. Then, out of the blue, she felt her body starting to falter.
“I was out walking with my best friend who just happens to be a paramedic,” Lisa explains. “I just didn’t feel right and I said to her, ‘I feel like I’ve got a 20-kilo weight sitting on my chest.’ To any paramedic that’s alarm bells, so she took me straight up to hospital. That’s when they started doing all the tests.”
“If I didn’t go to the hospital, I may not be here today.”
Lisa was lucky. At the hospital, she was rushed straight to intensive care. Doctors found she was having 22,000 irregular heartbeats a day.
Lisa was shocked. “I just thought, ‘Hang on, I am an Olympic athlete. Why would I have a heart problem?'”
As a precautionary measure, Lisa was fitted with a defibrillator just under her skin.
“It’s a pacemaker and a defibrillator in one,” explains Lisa. “If my heart goes below 60 or if it starts getting erratic, the pacemaker will kick in and get the rhythm back to normal.”
“I don’t even remember it half the time, until it starts beeping and I need a battery change, which is about every seven years. It is a reminder. It’s a reminder that life is short.”
‘The at risk age for women for heart disease is 44 to 65, but lots of things can help prevent heart disease, and exercise is one of them.’
“The at risk age for women for heart disease is 44 to 65, but lots of things can help prevent heart disease, and exercise is one of them,” Lisa reveals.
The warning signs
For Lisa, training is no longer about the medals or the mirror. It’s about a healthy heart and living longer.
One thing we can do according to Dr Nikki Stamp is to learn to recognise the warning signs. “Very few women have traditional chest pain,” she explains. “A lot of them will complain of heaviness or aches and pains somewhere else like the neck, the arm, the jaw, the back, the tummy, tiredness, lethargy. Whenever I explain this to a group of women they all roll their eyes at me and say, ‘Yeah, we’re always tired.'”
“It gets swept aside because we think that there’s nothing to worry about and don’t go looking further when it’s exactly what we should do.”
Simple tests can check whether you have a healthy heart. When you exercise, your heart needs more oxygen. If there’s a problem, your heart won’t be able to keep up with demand. The machine will pick that up.
Women helping women
Ania Monka ended up in the care of Dr Nikki Stamp after her male doctor dismissed her shortness of breath simply as old age. Ania struggled on for months before Dr Stamp diagnosed a faulty valve. The only way to save Ania’s life is to perform life-saving surgery.
Ania’s experience isn’t uncommon. Research shows women having a heart attack have better outcomes if they see a female doctor.
“The way a woman experiences heart disease is quite different,” Dr Stamp explains. “It seems to be there’s some kind of understanding when you have a doctor who’s the same gender as you.”
But right now, the number of female heart specialists is shamefully low.
‘5% of heart surgeons are female, which equates to about a dozen.’
“In Australia, 5% of heart surgeons are female, which equates to about a dozen,” Dr Stamp reveals.
It will take a few months for Ania to fully recover from open-heart surgery, but Dr Stamp is confident her heart will keep her going for a long time to come.
“I try not to play favourites with my patients, but I do love helping out a woman, particularly when I know that women are so at risk,” Dr Stamp says. “It feels like I’m doing something towards helping the cause of women’s hearts.”
“I want every woman to understand that her heart is important. Just as important as getting your pap smears and your mammogram, you need to get your heart checked every year.”
A list of warning signs and more can be found on the Heart Foundation website.