Healthy Heart, Healthy Life
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 655,000 Americans die from heart disease each year — that’s 1 in every 4 deaths.
Catherine Biggers is active, fit, doesn’t smoke and had a heart attack at the age of 45. She had no pre-existing health conditions and no genetic history of heart disease. And although her heart attack came as a terrible shock, Biggers’ story is one of hope.
On July 28, 2020, Biggers had been playing tennis when she felt a crushing pain in her chest and left arm. Being young and healthy, she told herself she was probably just tired and decided to turn in early that night. As she lay in bed, a small part of her wondered, “What if?” At four in the morning, she woke up to excruciating pain in her chest and arm again, but now accompanied by another symptom — jaw pain. This time, she listened to her gut and went to the hospital.
Biggers’ heart attack was a surprise even to the ER nurses and doctor who at first assured her it was probably just anxiety. But, after running precautionary tests and an EKG, the doctor came back with the tough news. “He put his hand on my leg and said, ‘You are having an active heart attack,’” she recalls. Biggers was placed in an ambulance and rushed over to a cardiac hospital where she spent several days in the ICU. “That was very scary.”
Cardiologists discovered she had an uncommon type of heart condition called Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD), which is a tear in an artery wall. This kind of heart attack doesn’t follow the traditional risk factors associated with more common heart attacks. In fact, SCAD mostly targets women exactly like Biggers — women who are in their mid-40s to mid-50s and are healthy and active. Researchers aren’t sure what causes SCAD, but just like other types of heart attacks, it’s important to recognize the symptoms and get treatment immediately.
Know the Signs
If there’s one thing we can learn from Biggers’ experience, it’s to pay attention to possible signs of a heart attack and take them seriously. Early recognition of heart attack symptoms equals early treatment and a better chance of survival. In her case, if she had not gone to the emergency room that day, doctors said her heart attack would have been fatal. Experiencing a heart attack may be beyond your control, but what you can do is know the signs and get to a hospital immediately.
The Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) has instilled a “Dial, Don’t Drive” campaign. About half of all heart attack patients drive themselves to the ER, not realizing the potential for cardiac arrest along the way or the risk of not going to the appropriate hospital. Calling 911 for an ambulance is more than a quick ride to the hospital. Treatment begins in the ambulance with first responders who know which hospital is best for cardiac emergencies. They can start treatment right away, assess vital signs, perform an EKG, start an IV and begin life-saving measures that can often be the difference between life and death.
According to the American Heart Association, the following are the most common signs of a heart attack.
Call 911 if you experience:
• Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes — or it may go away and then return. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
• Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
• Shortness of breath. This can occur with or without chest discomfort.
• Other signs. Other possible signs include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
Sadly, heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 655,000 Americans die from heart disease each year — that’s 1 in every 4 deaths. In Arkansas, 8,675 people died of heart disease in 2019.
Dr. Sarah Beth McKenzie of Arkansas Heart Hospital recommends that, whether heart disease runs in a person’s family or not, everyone should establish care with a physician and see that doctor regularly. “That way, your doctor can identify familial patterns that might need further evaluation,” she explains. Women are especially urged to make heart health a priority. According to McKenzie, death by cardiovascular disease has been declining in men, but not in women. Women share the same risk factors as men — such as family history, age, hypertension, diabetes and more — but they have additional risk factors related to menopause, hysterectomy and pregnancy.
McKenzie screens her patients with risk factors annually and recommends patients with no known risk factors undergo specific cardiovascular risk assessments throughout their lifetime. She also asks people to focus on lifestyle modification because “the best treatment is prevention.” Maintaining a healthy lifestyle means keeping a continuous pattern of good habits. It is something you can work on every day.
Hope for Hearts
Biggers is one of this year’s speakers for the Central Arkansas Go Red for Women event. The event, run by the American Heart Association’s (AHA) local chapter, is one of several created to bring awareness about heart disease and to be a driving force for research, public health policy and gender and racial equality in health care.
“Every person deserves the opportunity to live a healthy life, regardless of their gender or socioeconomics,” LaShannon Spencer says. “It’s a matter of removing those barriers so that they can.”
As the Community Health Centers of Arkansas CEO and the Central Arkansas 2021 Go Red for Women Chair, Spencer is passionate about bringing awareness, especially to those groups that need it most. “I am passionate about this because heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women,” she emphasizes. “How are we, as women, taking care of ourselves? How are we as women, wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, friends empowering to educate our loved ones about the power of being healthy and whole and eliminating stress, which can actually be a trigger?”
AHA has created a road map to advance cardiovascular health for all by removing barriers to health care access and quality by 2024.
Almost one year later, Biggers is living a healthy and full life. “I don’t know if this will happen again, but I can’t live my life in fear that it might,” she says. “I want to inspire other women who are dealing with heart disease to find out what their new life looks like and find joy in that.”
Biggers’ new life includes a few things she cannot do anymore but also many things she can. She still bikes, hikes and plays tennis. Now, she takes her prescribed daily medication, keeps up with her doctor’s visit and stays informed by reading information related to her heart condition. She also adds some practical steps to her daily routines, like monitoring her heart rate with a smartwatch to make sure it stays in her recommended zone.
For a healthy heart:
• Watch your weight.
• Quit smoking and stay away from secondhand smoke.
• If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation.
• Control your cholesterol and blood pressure.
• Get active and eat healthily.