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Heart Warriors
The women empowering others to take control of their health
By Kate Morgan

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, but many may not even know they’re at risk.

For three South Jersey women, heart issues and stroke came as utter surprises. They were young, otherwise healthy, and never thought it could happen to them. Now, as survivors, they work with the American Heart Association to tell their stories to help other women recognize the signs of a problem, so they can advocate for their own heart health.

Brandi Dockett

When Brandi Dockett was in college, she’d occasionally feel faint or even come close to blacking out. “I’d think, ‘Oh, it was a late night, we were drinking.’ It really didn’t happen that often,” says the Mt. Royal native, now 45.

Doctors were quick to chalk up her symptoms to migraines. “Anytime they listened to my heart it was strong, totally fine,” she says.

But when she was on the verge of 40 and training for her first marathon, Dockett began suddenly experiencing heart palpitations.

“I’d get woozy, my chest hurt, it took my breath away,” she says. “To me, this was normal, but it turns out these are all the symptoms of a serious problem.”

Still, proof would not come easily. She was outfitted with a five-day heart monitor.  But at the end of the week, there were still no answers.

“Because my symptoms didn’t happen every day, no one caught it,” she explains. “I don’t know if my cardiologist saw something or just had a feeling, but he decided to extend the test.”

On day eight or nine of a 21-day monitor, an episode was finally recorded. An undiagnosed blockage had caused her heart to continually stop for nine seconds at a time.

A fitness professional, Dockett was heading out to teach a spin class when she got the call to go immediately to the hospital. Things moved quickly after that: her cardiologist determined that an electrical issue was causing her heart to stop or beat out of rhythm. He recommended installing a pacemaker.

“Getting the pacemaker was bittersweet at first, because it felt like, ‘Why did my body do this to me?’” she says. “But I also felt relief because I’ll never have to worry about this again. I don’t have to be afraid of blacking out every time I get in the car or walk down the steps or lay down to go to sleep.”

Two weeks after the surgery, Dockett was up and running – literally. She went on to finish the Philadelphia Marathon without missing a beat. She has since finished a long-distance ultramarathon and has taken up trail running. Dockett retells her story to inspire other women to take control of their health.

“As women, we start making excuses for things,” she says. “If one doctor says, ‘Oh, it sounds like this,’ you want to believe them. You don’t want to question it, or you’re too busy taking care of others and you don’t have time to figure out what’s really wrong. I hope now I’m empowering my daughters to know that whatever little thing you think it is, you get it checked, and you don’t let anyone play it off.”

Alex Leary

On a warm September day in 2017, Alex Leary, then 21, was celebrating at a friend’s backyard BBQ when she lost the ability to speak.

“We were playing games, running around, and all of a sudden I was trying to speak and I couldn’t,” she says. “I knew in my mind what I wanted to say, but I could hear what was coming out of my mouth was garbled gibberish.”

Next, Leary recalls, she realized something felt wrong with her face. She sat down and almost immediately lost all ability to move the right side of her body.

“I wasn’t familiar at all with the signs of a stroke,” says the now 22-year-old who had no family history of heart issues. “One of my friends had just graduated nursing school, and thank God she was there to say we needed to call 911.”

When first responders arrived, Leary says, they too were slow to grasp the urgency of the situation.

“A couple of police officers got there first, and they were asking me how much I’d had to drink,” Leary says. She’d only had one or two beers, but the officers seemed to think she was simply inebriated.

By the time she arrived at the hospital, Leary was frantic and her whole right side was still frozen. A neurologist diagnosed the stroke and administered TPA, a

clot-dissolving medication which, when administered quickly, can resolve the symptoms of a stroke. After a few hours, Leary regained her movement. 

“They discovered I had a dissection in my carotid artery,” she says. “A clot had travelled to the back, left side of my brain. They still don’t know what caused it, and that’s the scariest part. I don’t know what it was, so I don’t know what not to do.”

Today, Leary, who works at Holman Automotive Group in Mount Laurel, tries to go about her life as normally as possible. She is not shy to talk about what happened to her and will implore anyone who will listen to learn the signs of a stroke.

“People need to at least know the basic symptoms,” she explains, noting that hers were textbook signs, only she had no clue. “I also want women to understand that you really have to listen to your body. Not that every time something comes up you have to rush off to the ER, but when there’s something really unusual, you need to get it checked out, right away.”

Andrea Senatore

Just shy of 10 years ago and just after her 40th birthday, Andrea Senatore woke up on a Sunday morning with a terrible pain in her stomach. “It just got worse from there – cold sweats, fatigue, vomiting,” she recalls. “I talked to my mom, who said we should go to the ER.”

It was late fall – the start of flu season – and doctors quickly decided the young, seemingly healthy woman with no history of heart disease most likely had the flu. They didn’t perform any heart tests and instead put a germ mask over her nose and mouth. Her breathing became even more labored. She began to drift out of consciousness.

“A doctor who was off-duty was there with some students,” Senatore says. “He stopped when he passed my bed and asked my mom what was wrong. She told him I couldn’t breathe – I was almost grey and starting to slump over.”

The off-duty doctor leapt into action and ordered an EKG, which uses electrodes over the skin to record the heart’s electrical activity. It showed Senatore was having a heart attack.

“When he saw the results, that doctor leaned over and said, ‘Listen. Just stay calm, because a lot of things are about to happen really fast.’”

Doctors ran tests and administered medication, including TPA to try to break up the clot in Senatore’s heart. She was lucky: it worked.

Today, Senatore is an ambassador for the American Heart Association. She tells women that heart attacks don’t always look like the “Hollywood version.” Many women never get the chest or arm pain that most men get with a heart attack, and women are more likely to be written off by their doctors, and by themselves.

“A week or two before, I had fatigue and aches,” Senatore says. “I thought it was just stress. I was able to justify everything. When I got to the hospital and said I couldn’t breathe, my original doctor said, ‘You can’t breathe because you need to calm down.’ I was dismissed, and if the second doctor hadn’t ordered the EKG, my story could’ve ended much differently.”

February 2019
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