Why Your Doctor May Misdiagnose Your Heart Attack

As the director of women’s cardiac services at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California and an attending cardiothoracic surgeon at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, California, Dr. Kathy Magliato has operated on her fair share of female patients. Here she shares one of her patients’ stories so that women everywhere can protect themselves from heart disease:

On a warm July morning in 1979 Donna went running, as was her routine. She was thirty-five years old. She was a movie producer at the top of her game. By lunch she didn’t “feel so good.” She was cold and clammy and her usually crisp white Armani blouse was sticking to her skin. She made it through her “power lunch” but went home to rest. By 4:00 p.m. she was lying on her bathroom floor pressing her forehead against the marble tile because its coolness made her feel better. Ironically, on her way home, she had stopped at the home of her internist, who was a personal friend. She told him that she felt generally unwell and had an awful pain in her chest that seemed like it was “boring a hole clean through” to her back. He told her that she had a “diaphragmatic stitch” in her side from running that morning. (Now, incidentally, would be a good time to tell you that in a survey done a mere four years ago, fewer than one in five physicians recognized that more women die of heart disease than men each year, and among primary care physicians, only 8 percent knew this fact.)

But Donna knew something was wrong. Very wrong. We all have a built-in sixth sense about our bodies. We just need to trust it. We are the nurturers. We are the caregivers. We are the mommies, the aunts, the grandmothers, the sisters. We care for those around us and we do not listen to our own bodies when they cry out for healing and attention. “I’ll deal with it later” is the mantra of most women when confronted by their own health issues, and yet we are the first ones to put our dads on a train to Memorial Sloan- Kettering to have their prostate radiated. Ladies, it’s time to put your health issues at the head of the queue.

So what did Donna do? She brought herself straight to the hospital. She didn’t care if when she got there they would just dismiss her with a “stomach flu.” She cared more about her survival than she did about the possible embarrassment of going to the hospital for something that might be non–life threatening. A good lesson for us all. I have had so many women tell me that they did not go to the ER when they experienced chest pain because of their concern that it might be a false alarm. So what? You waste an afternoon in the ER. At least you are alive to go home in time for dinner.

The tests eventually showed that Donna had had a heart attack. She was admitted to the coronary care unit and was treated with the medications available at the time and bed rest. Sure, at night she finds it difficult to sleep because she worries about her heart, but today she is alive. She is beautiful. She is my friend. And she is unscathed by heart disease…

What saved Donna’s life? Pure and simple, it was knowledge. Of all the things that women can do to avoid heart disease—quit smoking, exercise, diet—knowledge is the most important. We have done such an incredible job with breast cancer awareness that through educating the female public, women know the risk factors for breast cancer, the signs of breast cancer, how to do self-exams and regularly engage in screening mammograms. Because of this awareness campaign and knowledge, women are diagnosed at an earlier stage and survive breast cancer. Now, if we could just launch the same awareness campaign for cardiovascular disease, we would affect women’s survival in numbers that would be unprecedented.

When I lecture to women about heart disease, I always leave them with two things to remember. I tell them that if they just employ these two measures, they will be able to stay away from me, the chest- cracker. Now, I’m a nice gal and generally fun to be around, but you don’t want to be on the receiving end of my scalpel. Trust me. The two things are these: (1) Know your numbers and (2) know your symptoms. I want this to be your mantra, like “Save the cheerleader, save the world,” for all of you Heroes fans out there. What I mean by this is know your heart health numbers—your total cholesterol, your “good” cholesterol (HDL), your “bad” cholesterol (LDL), your triglycerides, your blood pressure, and if you are a diabetic, your blood sugar. Why? Because if you know these numbers, you will own these numbers and strive to keep them in the normal range.


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