For years, many people – including doctors – only thought of men when it came to heart disease. But all the while, women’s hearts were showing signs of distress too. Today, heart disease is the number-one killer of women, causing the death of someone’s mother, sister or daughter every minute.

You’ll find almost everyone has a story to tell of how heart disease came into their life and changed it forever. Here are some special stories from the heart.

columbiTish Colombi

Valentine’s Day has always had been a significant holiday for Tish Colombi, 68, who is the now-retired Mayor of Haddonfield. Growing up as one of three daughters, she remembers how her father would especially dote on his girls on this day.

“We had very little money, and that was the one holiday that was important to him,” she says. “He would always bring us candy on Valentine’s Day.”

Colombi and her dad also shared a passion for the Phillies. When the Phillies played in the 1993 World Series, her parents flew in from Texas to attend two games.

“When we put him on the plane a couple days later, he said, ‘Sissy – his nickname for me – I can die a happy man. This is a dream I never expected to come true,’” she says. “The following February, on Valentine’s Day, I get a phone call and my mother says, ‘Daddy passed away today working out in his garden.’

“I couldn’t describe my emotions – sadness and also a kind of betrayal to take this one day that was such a wonderful memory of my father, and I now will remember that’s the day he passed away.” Colombi’s father was 56 years old when he died of a sudden heart attack.

About five years later, when she was 53, Colombi awoke one Valentine’s Day morning with indigestion that just wouldn’t go away.

“It was in the middle of my chest, like I had eaten something that didn’t agree with me,” she remembers. “I would notice it, and then it would go away. I did not think I was sick; I just had this upset stomach. During the night I woke up and vomited.

I thought at the time, ‘Finally, I’m going to feel better now.’ But I woke up around 7 the next morning, and I knew something was wrong. I can’t describe exactly what it was, but you know your body, and you know when something is wrong.”

So Colombi went to the hospital and discovered she was having a heart attack. She spent five days in the hospital and eventually fully recovered.

Until next Valentine’s Day.

Exactly one year later, Colombi had symptoms eerily similar to those from her heart attack. “This time I went to the hospital and there was a clot, and I needed open-heart surgery,” she recalls. “I’ve been fine ever since.”

Colombi doesn’t dwell on the possibility of another heart attack. She does, however, encourage her five children, ages 37 to 50, to get regular check-ups. “These things can happen when you least expect it, even though you feel you are healthy,” she says. “You especially have to be aware if there is any type of family history.”

DonsKaterina Dons

Katerina Dons is a true believer in fate. In 2006, at 22 years old, she was looking forward to starting a veterinary-technician college course. Even though she was healthy, she needed a physical to take the course.

“I had an allergic reaction to the test for tuberculosis, so they sent me for a chest X-ray,” she recalls. “The chest X-ray showed I had a massive aortic aneurysm. They said it was the largest they had seen in a living person in quite some time.”

Dons, now 29, endured a difficult 13-hour emergency cardiopulmonary bypass surgery to repair the aneurysm.

“They cooled my body to 50 degrees Fahrenheit to preserve brain function and then put a graft on my aorta,” says the Cinnaminson resident. “I certainly would have died had they not detected it. I had no signs or symptoms and no risk factors, so I was a walking time bomb. I was 22 years old, so until that happened, my biggest concern was making sure I had the newest outfit to go to a party.”

Dons has some residual damage to her heart and occasionally experiences an irregular heartbeat, which puts her at greater risk for a stroke or heart attack. But that hasn’t stopped her from enjoying life. In 2011, she married the supportive boyfriend who stayed by her side through her cardiac crisis.

And though Dons was originally interested in veterinary school, her hospital experience convinced her to become a physician’s assistant.

“I’ve been working the last three years in an emergency department, and one of my jobs is to catch cardiovascular disease in young patients. Every now and then, a patient comes in, and doctors want to dismiss them because they are young, have no risk factors or their symptoms don’t line up with what’s classic textbook. I’m a walking example of why healthcare professionals need to be more vigilant.

“I had a 5 percent chance of survival. I’m very, very lucky to be alive and not have any neurological deficit. I was very lucky to have it caught and to have the surgery. I hate to think I was blessed and survived for a specific purpose, because so many people have not survived aneurysms. I don’t feel it’s fair that somebody would have chosen me, per se. But I take it upon myself to say I did survive, and I’m perfectly capable and intelligent enough to pursue a career in medicine. That is how I pay it forward.”

Rosalie Mayes

Hovering near hypertension, Rosalie Mayes, 65, began making lifestyle changes. She started walking every day and began making more healthy food choices.

“In June of 2009, I went for an annual physical and had an abnormal EKG in my primary physician’s office,” she says. “She referred me to a cardiologist, and I got a stress test. The results weren’t good so I had a nuclear stress test and needed a cardiac catheterization. That revealed three coronary artery blockages, much to my surprise, because I was essentially without symptoms.”

Mayes, a retired nurse from Erial, then had successful bypass surgery and was put on heart and blood pressure medications. She realized she had one more lifestyle change she had to make.

Mayes“I stopped smoking,” says Mayes, who had smoked a pack a day since she was a teenager. “I’d tried in the past and relapsed, but this time, the diagnosis was a motivating factor. As I look back, what I would experience is that if I carried several packages up the stairs, I found myself to be short of breath. But I attributed that to my smoking. I hadn’t realized the smoking was damaging my arteries.”

Thinking she had a smooth road ahead, she was surprised again when her doctor found a tender spot in her chest. A chest X-ray revealed a nodule in her lung that turned out to be cancerous.

“It was unrelated to my heart issues,” says Mayes. “The tenderness I had in my chest was just residual from the heart surgery, from the nerves in the chest having been cut. But because the doctor ordered the chest X-ray, the nodule was found.”

It was also unrelated to smoking, Mayes says. “The type of cancer I had was adenocarcinoma, which is not the kind you get from smoking. It’s the type anyone could get. I had that nodule removed in 2011, and I’m happy to say I’ve been cancer-free since.”

Mayes understands how lucky she is that her heart issue was found before she had a heart attack and that her cancer was caught early. Now, she urges women to get regular physicals.

“Be in tune with your body so you know when something is different and just doesn’t feel right,” she says. “Make healthy choices and know your numbers – what’s your normal blood pressure, cholesterol and healthy weight.”

Mayes is trying to follow her own advice, but in the past year she developed spinal stenosis, and has herniated disks. She’d like to weigh less, but exercising is difficult.

“It causes excruciating back pain,” she says. “I’m trying to avoid anymore surgery. I have been concentrating on pain management and seeing a chiropractor, which has helped significantly. It might have something to do with all the years of nursing.”

Andrea Senatore

A few months after her 40th birthday, Andrea Senatore woke up with pain in her abdomen and lower back. “I vomited and had pain, fatigue and dizziness for several hours. I thought it was indigestion,” says the Bellmawr resident, now 44. “After about four or five hours, my mother insisted I go to the hospital.”

Because she had no family history of heart disease, ER doctors suspected Senatore had the flu – then she started having trouble breathing and felt pain in her left arm. A doctor ordered an EKG and found an artery was 100 percent blocked.

SenatoreSenatore had a cardiac catheterization and remained in the hospital for five days. While there, her doctors tried to figure out exactly what had happened.

“They found a couple of discrepancies in my blood but nothing that would cause it directly,” she says. “It was one of those things that just happened. As I look back now, I had every sign of a female heart attack. Unlike a male, you’re not clutching your chest.”

A couple of weeks prior to her heart attack, Senatore was extremely fatigued and stressed. “Women disregard it and think we’re just tired because we did too much,” she says. “I found myself short of breath walking up the stairs, and I thought I just wasn’t feeling well. I’m a real estate appraiser, and that was when the market dropped. I was under tremendous stress.”

Today, Senatore takes some medications and has made lifestyle changes, but says she doesn’t worry about the risk of another heart attack, though she struggled initially.

“I realize now when I look back that I was pretty depressed and freaked out by the whole thing, but I put on a façade, even in my own head,” she admits. “When I would feel any little twinge I would panic and think, ‘it’s happening again.’ A year and a half later I went to the ER with similar symptoms and found out I had a hiatal hernia. Interestingly enough, that’s what most women are misdiagnosed with when having a heart attack. They have very similar symptoms.

“I learned that it’s important to know yourself. If you’re not feeling OK, go to a doctor; you’re not a hypochondriac. Follow your doctor’s orders, take your meds, eat right, exercise, and do the things that can prevent it. Because I was in good physical health at the time, I had minimal damage to my heart, even with a 100-percent blockage. My heart should end up repairing itself within three to five years of the heart attack.”

DennisCharles Dennis, MD

In 1973, Charles Dennis was just four days away from his college graduation when his mother, Hildegarde, died suddenly from a heart attack. She was 46, a nurse and had no prior cardiac history. While working an overnight shift at the hospital, she collapsed and couldn’t be resuscitated.

“In those days, long-distance calling was very expensive, so we used to write letters back and forth,” recalls Dennis, director of the cardiac catheterization laboratory at Virtua Memorial Hospital. “I was the first of her kids to go to college, and she was very excited about that. I got the last letter she wrote me about a week before I graduated.”

Flash forward several years to when Dennis was graduating from medical school. As he packed up to move, he discovered his mother’s old letters and was shocked at what he read.

“In her last letter, she was telling me how she had all this discomfort up in her shoulder, and when she moved around, she had a lot of discomfort down her arm,” he says. “Her doctor had diagnosed her as having bursitis. Having just graduated medical school, I realized what my mother really had was unstable angina, a symptom of heart disease.

“Because she was a woman and only 46 years old, the primary care doctor didn’t realize this was actually a cardiac symptom. In those days, heart disease was a man’s disease, and folks didn’t really pay much attention to women who complained of chest or arm discomfort. That influenced me a lot to specialize in cardiology.”

Today, recognizing that he may have a genetic risk of heart disease, Dennis is especially careful to manage his own health. There are five risk factors for coronary disease: family history, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

“Four are treatable, but you can’t treat your genes, at least not currently,” he says. “My blood pressure and cholesterol are normal, I never smoked, don’t have diabetes, and there’s nothing I can do about genetics right now. I do get a lot of exercise, and I try to stay healthy and hope for the best.”

If only Dennis could turn back the clock. “I think if my mother was alive now, she’d say, ‘Every time I walk around there’s a discomfort in my right arm, and when I stop it goes away.’ I’d say, ‘Ok, it’s time for a heart catheterization.’ I would have picked that up immediately. Had her unstable angina been recognized, she would have survived.”

MinarichAimee Minarich

At 24 years old, Aimee Minarich was enjoying teaching dance at her own studio, Pizzazz Dance Center. A dancer for most of her life, she was physically fit, didn’t drink or smoke, and was enjoying the start of her business.

“Things were going very well,” says the Newfield resident, now 34. “I had gone shopping one morning and when I got into the car, things weren’t quite right. My right lip had drooped, and I wasn’t talking correctly. The person I was with had a little knowledge in EMT-type work, and he knew I was having a stroke.”

Fortunately, her friend sprung into action and took Minarich to the hospital where she was given tPA, a drug that dissolves a clot and improves blood flow to the brain. That quick response saved Minarich’s life.

“If that drug isn’t given to a stroke victim within three hours, the stroke can be fatal,” Minarich says. A CT scan confirmed that Minarich was having a stroke, and she had open-heart surgery to close a small flap-like hole that was found in her heart.

Before her stroke, one of Minarich’s favorite pastimes was competing in public speaking contests. But she soon discovered one side effect from her stroke was aphasia, a condition that robbed her of the ability to communicate.

“Aphasia can affect your ability to express and understand language, both verbal and written,” she says. “Sometimes I have a little trouble gathering up my ideas. It was depressing for a long time. There were times when I wouldn’t go out to places where there were a lot of people. I was afraid if someone were to approach me, I wouldn’t know what to say.”

Over time, she has become more comfortable with her communication skills. Her father suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and her desire to support him has shifted her focus from her own struggles to his. She also talks to people about her experience and what she has learned from it.

“When I was 24, I was healthy and strong, and I didn’t think anything could happen to me at that age. At 24 you wake up, take the day as it is. You don’t really care a lot about what’s going on or what you’re doing that day. The greatest lesson I learned was to truly feel blessed each and every day I wake up.”

February 2014
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