I recently travelled to Canberra and before I left, a woman asked why I was going. I said I was speaking at an event about my experience with heart disease. Her immediate response was: "Did your husband have a heart attack?"
This has been my overwhelming experience with the perception of heart disease -- that it's a male issue. We regularly hear about the life-saving importance of routine mammograms and pap smears for women, but heart checks and spotting early symptoms of heart disease are relatively unknown. This is despite the fact that almost three times as many Australian women die of heart disease every year than the common forms of cancer.
We need to raise awareness of this critical health issue and the risks it poses for mothers, daughters, sisters and partners all over the country. It's also imperative that today's women learn what can be done now, to prevent this debilitating disease in the future.
The Hidden Hearts: Cardiovascular Risk and Disease in Australian Womenreport, launched in Canberra last week by the Mary Mackillop Institute for Health Research at Australian Catholic University, revealed cardiovascular disease (which includes acute heart attack) and associated diseases such as diabetes and kidney failure, contribute to more than 31,000 deaths of Australian women every year.
Alarmingly, more than 3000 Australian women each year will suffer a sudden and fatal cardiac event without ever reaching a hospital. I easily could have been one of these women.
This is my experience with this 'hidden killer'.
I am an educated, 63-year-old Australian woman. I have been a registered nurse since 1974 and have a Masters in Counselling and Psychotherapy. Both these positions require a high degree of health self-awareness, and yet I was completely unaware of what was going on in my heart.
My diagnosis in June this year came after months of investigations following two falls I'd experienced out on my daily walks. They came with no warning and I lost consciousness -- needless to say, they were alarming. But not even me -- a nurse who came across cardiovascular issues in patients every day -- realised they related to a heart condition. In fact, I put them down to poor balance and low core strength, and joined an outdoor group training program, as well as the Barossa Marathon Running Festival.
I thought I was fit and well and did not exhibit classic lifestyle symptoms of heart disease. I don't have coronary artery disease or diabetes, nor do I smoke, or have low blood pressure. I have normal cholesterol, eat reasonably well and lead an active life. Now I have a defibrillator, pacemaker and loop recorder implanted in my chest.
In simple terms, I have a problem with the 'electrics' in my heart. The chambers don't receive the impulses quickly enough to make the muscle of the heart pump out blood efficiently. That was the reason for my pacemaker. I'm also prone to runs of tachycardia, which means my heart rate can flutter abnormally fast, so now I also have a defibrillator implanted which acts as a kind of 'crash cart' if my heart stops.
Heart disease has impacted my life in profound ways.
Initially, the physical pain, getting used to the devices and fatigue were the main issues. While fatigue is still a problem, I am physically healing. Yet my life has forever changed. I have experienced significant shock, grief and loss, tears, anger, frustration and loneliness. My family are the centre of my life, and I feel I have a good life ahead of me, but sometimes I feel overwhelmed.
I experienced depression due to isolation and my lack of independence, now that I can't drive my car. I also miss caring for my grandchildren -- that is a big change to get used to. I am lucky I have a passion for embroidery and my garden.
My coping skills have been challenged. Modified exercise, meditation and prayer, being in nature, beautiful music and the love of family and friends are some of the ways I've soothed my soul through this journey. I'm also very grateful to the health professionals who have cared for me.
I have been through a traumatic time, as has my family, but I am incredibly fortunate to be here to tell the tale.
I would encourage all women to give heart disease the attention it so crucially needs. Just like a mammogram or pap smear, tests for heart disease need a fixed place in our annual health checks.
Educate yourself -- speak to your doctor, do some research, ask for a list to help you detect the early signs, stay active, and book in regular check-ups. Heart disease is a hidden killer and can strike when you least expect it; it sure did for me.
Tell others -- your family, friends and women in your life -- that all forms of cardiovascular disease are deadly and disabling, even with hospital treatment. That this issue has reached epidemic proportions in Australia, yet no one seems to talk about it.
Help me, and others, spread the message about cardiovascular disease to Australian women, and to those that love and care for them. Perhaps then, the next time I travel to discuss my experience with heart disease, there's no question of who I am talking about.