Health: Matters of the Heart
Wonder F. Lowe
photographs courtesy of Wonder F. Lowe and Vickie Wingfield
One November night in 1997, Wonder F. Lowe, then 29 years old, was watching television with her children, when her laughter turned into a sudden shortness of breath. “I felt like I was having an asthma attack. I got really short of breath … so much so, I thought I’d pass out,” Lowe said.
Her oldest daughter called for her mother-in-law, who lived just around the corner, and her youngest daughter helped her get dressed. Lowe was assessed by ER doctors who told her that she was suffering from congestive heart failure. The diagnosis floored her.
“I experienced problems with my blood pressure during my pregnancy with my youngest daughter, but it seemed to level off afterward,” Lowe said. “And with my busy life — I was a full-time college student with two jobs including a home-based business — my heart disease went untreated.”
Lowe said she did have several signs that something was wrong. “I looked like the Michelin man — I’d gained weight. I was out of breath walking on campus, but I just thought I’d gained weight so it was to be expected. I also had migraines that lasted all day.”
Lowe visited the doctor and was told that she was too busy and needed to slow down and get some rest. The trip to the ER revealed much more. “I was told that if we had arrived any later I would have died. My lungs were full of fluid. I cried. I thought ‘what if I die? What about my family?’ I stayed in the hospital for a week. I lost 40 pounds — it was pure fluid.”
Lowe was treated for her condition; however, in December 1998, she suffered a second episode. Her new doctor asked if she’d ever had a heart attack as his examination revealed that she had scar tissue and “the heart of a 65-year-old.”
“I didn’t smoke. I didn’t drink … I didn’t have many of the factors that contribute to heart disease; however, I had the worst indicator of heart disease of them all: heredity,” she said. Three of her family members suffered fatal heart attacks; three cousins have had heart attacks, another a stroke; her great aunt had two heart attacks and has a pacemaker; and her mother has a triple defibrillator.
In March 2003, Lowe had a third episode and learned that she had a left ventricular prolapse — one of her heart’s valves didn’t close properly allowing blood to back up in her heart and fluid to fill her lungs. After she recovered, Lowe decided to do everything necessary to improve her health and to help others. She volunteers at the AHA chairing her company’s Heart Walk each year. She has served on the AHA board of directors; has co-chaired events and is a past president of the state advisory committee.
“I have to help educate others about heart disease and help raise money to get information out to others like me,” Lowe said. “I volunteer because it’s personal … ‘it’s my heart.’”
As community relations director for the Arkansas Heart Hospital (AHH) in Little Rock, Ark., Vickie Wingfield is intimately familiar with the “classic warning signs” of a heart attack. In fact, she routinely — and happily — speaks to Arkansans about heart health and the need to be proactive. However, she admits that she missed her own symptoms.
“I didn’t have any of the classic warning signs; however, I was fatigued all of the time, for several months. I just passed it off as getting older, doing too much, going to fast,” Wingfield said. “As long as I was moving, I was fine, but in the evenings once I stopped, I crashed.”
Wingfield has been employed at the hospital for 16 years, and occasionally serves as a stand-in patient for physicians testing new equipment. “I was asked to help with the staff certification for a new machine, a 124-slice CT scanner.”
Wingfield had previously undergone a stress test — her father died of a heart attack — and her physician thought it’d be a good idea to have the CT angiography; thus, he gave his required consent. As a result of the test, which was purely coincidental, doctors found Wingfield had a narrow artery … not just any artery, the arterial artery. “I was surprised. I’m fairly active, and I thought that with cholesterol medicine, buckling down with diet and exercise and really being proactive with my heart health, I’d be fine,” she said.
“If I’d had a heart attack, I probably wouldn’t have survived. The artery that was blocked is called ‘the widow maker’ and it was 75 percent blocked.”
Wingfield received a stent and has been healthy since. “I talk about heart disease all the time. I do research to make sure I know what I’m talking about. So if I, knowing all I know, can suffer from heart disease, what about all the other women out there? If I can have symptoms and still rationalize them — ‘oh, I just need to slow down,’ or ‘I just need to get a little rest’ — what about other women who don’t know as much? It’s very important that we get information out to women. I always say the No. 1 warning sign of women with heart disease is denial. We say: ‘I’ve got the kids, I’ve got my job, I’ve got things to do, people to see …’ but we must take care of ourselves.”
Wingfield said so many of the preventative steps women can take are easy — diet and exercise. She educates women in her official capacity with the AHH and as a volunteer for the American Heart Association. She’s served on the board for eight years; works on the committee for the annual Heart Ball; and on the executive committee for the Go Red for Women Luncheon.
“The Arkansas Heart Hospital also serves as a sponsor for the Heart Walk, which this year will be on April 21,” Wingfield said. She hopes to one day see the walk become as popular and enjoy the same participation as the Komen Race for the Cure.
“Breast cancer is a horrible disease, and I love what Komen [for the Cure] has done to raise awareness. Heart disease is the No.1 killer of women — one in three women die of heart disease — it’s much more prevalent, and I would love to see the number of participants for the Heart Walk increase.”
Last year, 2,500 people participated in the Heart Walk. Wingfield would like to see this number double. “We have a lot to be thankful for, but we have a lot more work to do.”
The Southwest Affiliate of the AHA, located on Second Street in downtown Little Rock, Ark., has more than 450 volunteers who render their services assisting with event set-up, obtaining auction items, serving as board and committee members and spokespersons, and much more.
“Many of the volunteers are heart disease survivors or family members of survivors,” said Alexis Sims, communications director, AHA Southwest Affiliate.
Volunteers serve in a number of areas and committees, such as the Circle of Red, a group of women who are influential in their communities and who have a passion to effect change. “This is an opportunity to network with other women who have influence and a passion to help raise funds for awareness of heart disease. Seventy-five cents of every dollar raised goes to heart disease research. For Go Red, that money goes to fund research to benefit women and educate them on heart disease,” Sims said.
Last month, the affiliate kicked off the Red Tie Society. “The local Society was founded and is chaired by Dr. Ricardo Sotomora, a pediatric cardiologist/neonatologist. This group of 12 men — and their numbers may increase — have come together to support the women in their lives and to advocate for their heart health,” Sims said.
Like the Circle of Red members, the Red Tie Society will hold several events throughout the year to spread the message of women’s heart health. The men will don their crimson ties this year for National Wear Red Day, Feb. 3, and later when more than 550 women attend this year’s Go Red Luncheon at noon, May 9 at the Statehouse Convention Center. This year’s speaker is Sheila Cluff, the “grandmother of aerobics.”
Go Red BetterU
Last year, the AHA launched Go Red BetterU, a free 12-week, online nutrition and fitness program divided into courses that focus on 12 areas in which participants learn tools to “manage heart health through nutrition and physical activity.” Courses include tools to help women identify their strengths, maintain their resolve and momentum; increase physical activity; learn their family history; and become educated about blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol and the importance of being smoke free.
The program also includes 365 tips such as:
• Focus on lifestyle rather than diet. It’s the small choices you make daily that make a huge difference;
• Check food labels for the number of servings per container; and
• Don’t let your mood control your food. Ask yourself why you want to eat before you pick up a snack.
For more information about the Go Red BetterU program, log onto goredforwomen.org and click on the BetterU Program tab.