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Women and Heart Attacks

Aired July 9, 2003 - 20:07   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: She was 30 years old, in great shape, training, even, for a marathon, when, one day, she felt the classic symptoms of a heart attack: chest pain, nausea, shortness of breath. She went to the hospital, was told nothing was wrong. Well, she insisted doctors hook her up to an EKG.
But, even after they did that, they didn't want to believe she was having a heart attack. This is Cindy DeMarco's case. She spoke up. She got some treatment. That ended up saving her life. What is unusual, though, is that this may be that this case is not that unusual at all. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women.

She joins me now from Washington. We're also joined by Dr. Harry Selker in Boston. He is the chief of clinical care research at Tufts- New England Medical Center.

Good to have both of you with us. Welcome.

Cindy, now, explain to us how aggressive you had to be to get your EKG. You went in and you had very classic symptoms of a heart attack, right?

CINDY DEMARCO, HEART ATTACK SURVIVOR: I did, Paula. I had very classic symptoms.

I had the crushing chest pain. I had upper back pain, which actually is symptomatic for women who are having heart attacks. I had nauseousness. I had shortness of breath. I had tingling down the sides of my arm and in my jaw. But when I walked into the emergency room, no one ever thought it was a heart attack. But I had to actually -- they were going to send me home with some muscle relaxers. And I actually had to demand further testing.

And when I looked above my head, I saw the EKG. I said, I want an EKG. And almost reluctantly, they put me on the EKG, hooked me up. And you should have seen the looks on their faces. They were shocked to see that I was having a heart attack.

ZAHN: Doctor Selker, this is a pretty outrageous story of Cindy being misdiagnosed. How common is it in this country?

DR. HARRY SELKER, TUFTS-NEW ENGLAND MEDICAL CENTER: Well, obviously, the classic view we have of a person having a heart attack is a middle-aged, often white man, clutching his chest and going to the ground. And, in fact, of course, as you already indicated, women have heart attacks frequently as well. It's the most common cause of death.

And the kinds of people we miss with heart attacks are those who in fact are not the kind we expect. So, younger women, minorities, those who have normal EKGs or don't have chest pain, those are all people more likely to be missed. And so she's a classic example of a younger woman having her heart attack missed.

ZAHN: So, Doctor, why don't you walk through what it is patients need to be aware of. What are the most obvious symptoms?

SELKER: Well, first of all, women and men have relatively similar symptoms. There may be a little bit of shift in women. So, for example, the most common symptoms are chest -- I like to say discomfort, because it's rarely just exactly pain. It can be discomfort, pressure, feeling like an elephant.

It also radiates, as hers did, sometimes to the back, sometimes to the jaw, to the teeth, to the arms, especially the left arm. Often, there will be shortness of breath. There will be a little bit of sweating. There will be some nausea, maybe vomiting. Sometimes, people will have the chest pain lower down in their abdomen, than up in the middle of their chest. That also can be a heart attack.

In women, it's a little bit more likely that there will be chest -- that there will be shortness of breath, maybe a little bit more likelihood of nausea. But, generally, those are the symptoms we should all worry about, women or men. And when we have them, it's probably time to call 911.

ZAHN: Cindy, had you not demanded that EKG, do you think you probably would have died?

DEMARCO: That's what my cardiologist told me. I probably wouldn't have made it or I would have had serious -- more serious condition, where I would go into heart failure or something or need a heart transplant. So I'm lucky to be here. I'm lucky to be alive.

And it is the No. 1 killer of women, heart disease. Eight million women live with this disease. And women need to educate themselves. They need to learn about early detection. They need to learn about getting an accurate diagnosis. And they need to receive the proper treatment.

ZAHN: Well, Cindy DeMarco, you certainly raised our attention level. And we certainly know what to be aware of. Thank goodness you survived.

Dr. Harry Selker, thank you for your excellent information tonight.

SELKER: Thank you.

DEMARCO: Thank you.

ZAHN: Best of luck to both of you.


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