Assessing, protecting the health of women

Sister to Sister offers screenings at fair in city today


February 18, 2005|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff

Kendra Hance went to an executive breakfast before the Sister to Sister health fair in Washington last year strictly as part of her job. She worked for CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, a sponsor of the event that spotlights heart disease in women.

As long as she was there, the Woodlawn resident figured, she'd get a free heart health screening. What she learned in that routine procedure changed her life.

Her blood pressure was high, and she was urged to follow up with her doctor. The diagnosis: Hance was on the verge of developing diabetes if she didn't lose at least 30 pounds from her 5-foot-4-inch, 186-pound frame.

A year later, as the 2005 Sister to Sister fair takes place today in 12 cities -- including, for the first time, Baltimore -- Hance, 31, has lost more than 50 pounds, has normal cholesterol and blood pressure and makes quarterly visits to the doctor. And she's urging women to attend the free health fair.

"I never thought it could be me being given a death sentence," she said.

The health fairs are sponsored by Sister to Sister: Everyone Has a Heart Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded five years ago by social worker Irene Pollin, wife of Washington sports team owner Abe Pollin, to help women prevent heart disease. In the six cities where 15,000 women attended Sister to Sister fairs last year, more than a third of those screened learned they were at risk.

That's not surprising to Celia Maxwell. Despite news reports several years ago that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women and that symptoms of it can be more subtle in women than in men, many haven't gotten the message, she said.

"The level of concern definitely isn't where it needs to be," said Maxwell, assistant vice president for health sciences at Howard University and a Sister to Sister board member.

Recent research shows that doctors have a way to go in recognizing warning signs in female patients. A study published this month in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, found that doctors given sample patient profiles often classified a woman's risk for heart disease as lower than a man's when the risk was, in fact, the same.

"This recent research really points to the need for women to empower themselves and know their personal level of risk for heart disease," said Lori Mosca, director of preventive cardiology at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, who led the study. "It's important that women don't assume that they have been screened adequately for heart disease."

Women who take part in the Sister to Sister screenings will receive a "personal heart profile" that shows their levels of total cholesterol, good cholesterol, body-mass index, glucose, waist circumference and blood pressure, said Mosca, who is Sister to Sister's chief medical adviser. Along with each woman's results, numbers will be listed that show where she should be.

Mosca recommends that women take the screening results to their primary care doctors and discuss what to do about them.

If proper screening isn't done, the problem is compounded by the fact that symptoms of heart problems in women can be maddeningly vague. "Lots of times many of the women that have coronary artery urgencies or emergencies only complain of being very tired," Maxwell said.

Even when the signs are more like the chest pains commonly experienced by men, women may downplay them.

When Nan Duerling felt persistent chest and arm pain as she read the newspaper one Saturday, she first thought she had pulled a muscle lugging heavy books. After all, the Crownsville writer and editor was only 49.

Her father had died of a heart attack at 60, an uncle at 57, a grandfather at 56. Even a great-great-grandfather's death certificate showed heart disease as the cause.

But they were all men, so Duerling never thought the family pattern would affect her so directly. "I really, at that age, being a woman, did not associate what I was experiencing with a heart attack," she said. "I didn't think it was possible."

Her husband insisted on a trip to the hospital, where doctors found her main artery 90 percent blocked. Two angioplasties and bypass surgery followed within three months.

Afterward, Duerling lost weight, took medication, started exercising regularly and became proficient at cooking with organic fruits and vegetables. Eight years later, she is doing well.

"Truly," she said, "it is a miracle and a blessing from God that I am even here."

Sandy Hillman, CEO of the Baltimore firm Trahan, Burden & Charles, had long been an advocate to educate women about breast cancer, after her mother survived that disease twice. Then she heard Maxwell speak, and she became a leader of the local Sister to Sister effort. Hillman was struck by the fact that women were unaware that one in three women die of heart disease -- and that there was so much they could do to prevent a heart attack.

"This is something where on a personal level you can take charge of your life, you can do things differently," she said.

What should women do?

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