Heart disease is the top killer of American women, accounting for 1 in 4 deaths.
But many women still think of cardiovascular disease — heart attacks, strokes and arrhythmia — as “a man’s disease,” according to the American Heart Association.
The Go Red for Women campaign, devised by the Heart Association in 2004, has been working to change that, leading women in communities across the country to talk about their experiences and to learn how heart disease in women differs from men.
“I would advise every woman to learn your risk factors and then once you learn them, don’t ignore them,” says Myra Robin, 49, of Cecilia, a local spokeswoman for the Go Red campaign. “We know our bodies better than anyone else.”
Since the Go Red campaign began more than a decade ago, women are getting the message, according to AHA surveys.
Today, 285 fewer American women die from heart disease each day, according to the AHA, and deaths have dropped more than 30 percent over the past decade.
Women across the country will share their stories at Go Red for Women luncheons this month.
A few outspoken south Louisiana women shared their stories with The Advocate.
Estelle Martin, 74, Metairie
Just before Christmas in 2004, Martin was painting doors when she felt a vague discomfort in her chest. It wasn’t on the left side or in her arm, so she didn’t worry too much about it.
“I felt like something was pulling me down, almost like a weight,” she says.
Her husband convinced her to see a doctor, who ran tests, including an angiogram, which checks the blood flow in arteries.
She had five blockages in her arteries and was immediately admitted to the hospital for triple bypass heart surgery.
Martin’s family was shocked.
“I was always the healthy one,” she says. “I walked the mall and did all those things.”
But Martin knew her family history pointed to heart problems. Her father died of a heart attack in his 50s.
Today, she eats well and works out four to five days a week under the guidance of medical professionals at the East Jefferson General Hospital Wellness Center. She does it for herself, but also for her family.
“Some people ask, ‘Why are you doing that,” she says. “It’s my life. I’m fighting for my life, my children, my grandchildren and a great-grandchild.”
Cheri Termini, 56, Baton Rouge
Heart disease claimed Termini’s father at 42 and her sister at 33. So Termini took every precaution — eating right, exercising and getting a yearly check-up.
But in 2011, when she lived in Pennsylvania, doctors found four clogged arteries at her annual appointment. During her open-heart surgery, the surgeons also found a congenital defect — a hole in her heart.
“I was running three miles a day and working out and eating right and doing all the things you’re supposed to,” she says.
Termini moved to Baton Rouge last year after her husband, an anesthesiologist, began working at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center. She continues to work out regularly and eat well.
And she counsels women to take their heart health seriously, especially if there is a history of heart issues in the family. Inquire about an exercise stress test on a treadmill to test the strength of your heart, she says, even if the doctor does not bring it up.
“When you know there is a history, “ she says, “you need to go an extra step and keep on top of it yourself.”
Myra Robin, 49, Cecilia
A family history of heart attacks didn’t worry spokeswoman Robin. It wasn’t going to happen to her.
“I was really living the good life,” she says. “I was a smoker. I totally ignored all of the warning signs.”
She had a high-stress job in the oil industry and had high cholesterol.
Then, at 43, she had a major “widow maker” heart attack.
Late one Friday night, she couldn’t sleep because of chest pressure she blamed on indigestion. After taking antacids, she thought there was a chance it could be heart-related, so she swallowed two aspirin and woke her husband.
Those aspirin may have saved her life, she says.
At the hospital, stents were inserted into her heart arteries, and she learned she suffered long-term damage after her heart was deprived of oxygen for too long.
She quit smoking and quit her stressful job. Now she exercises regularly and eats well.
Robin encourages women to take the signs of a heart attack seriously and call 911.
“My advice would be to not wait too long if you think something is wrong,” she says. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”