Fatigue might be sign of more than just a busy lifestyle

November 01, 2005|By SUSAN REIMER

Barbara Mikulski said she felt like she was climbing eight flights of stairs while carrying Rosie O'Donnell on her back.

Now that's tired.

But we didn't think Maryland's sparkplug of a U.S. senator ever got tired.

This is a woman who drags her step-up box from podium to podium across the state, raising her sturdy little fist to protest the latest outrage against the workers and the poor until her cheeks glow with a ruddy flush.

But she was tired. Bone tired.

"I just kept trying. Harder and harder and harder," said Mikulski. But this overwhelming fatigue was not giving in to Mikulski's notable will. She could not drive her exhaustion away.

Finally, she checked herself into Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center in July, where doctors discovered that she had a serious but treatable heart condition known as atrial fibrillation.

In short, the four chambers of her heart were out of sync, and the top half was beating very fast.

"My heart has raced before," said Mikulski. "After all, I've met Robert Redford."

It is hard to imagine a woman of Mikulski's singular accomplishments doing no better than any other woman when it came to her own health.

Like most women, she thought heart trouble would reveal itself with a sharp pain in the chest or a numbness in the arm, the way it commonly does in men.

She didn't know that fatigue -- a condition most women have come to accept as the premium paid by their sex -- is the first warning of heart disease for women.

Like most women, she tried to ignore it. To work through it. To continue to care for others -- in this case, her constituents -- instead of herself. She did not understand that the reason why heart disease is more often fatal for women than for men is because women ignore their symptoms for so long.

"The longer I would have waited, the worse it would have become," said Mikulski. "Your heart does wear out, you know. Mine was early. I could get medication."

The senior woman in the U.S. Senate told her story to a roomful of female executives at a power breakfast in Baltimore last week.

These women were recruited to encourage the women in their companies, communities and families to get screened for heart disease when the Sister to Sister Foundation offers a free day of screenings at Baltimore's Convention Center in February.

Her urgent message -- there are none more devout than the newly converted -- is the one these women were asked to carry to their friends: get your blood pressure checked; get your cholesterol checked; get your blood sugar checked; get your weight checked. Find out if you are at risk for heart disease.

If you are at risk, you, like Mikulski, can do something about it.

"Then came the ominous words from the doctors," Mikulski said, continuing her story. "Diet and exercise. Believe me, these were not words that filled me with glee."

Mikulski's steps back to health were just that -- steps. She added more to her daily routine.

"If you can walk a block today, walk two blocks tomorrow," she said.

Mikulski cut her food and her busy schedule in half. "Both were hard to do," she said. But she realized that stress -- another given in the lives of women -- contributes to heart disease, too.

"We women worry about being thin and beautiful," said Mikulski, "when we should be worrying about being healthy."

"I am on the right track now, but it isn't easy. I like parsley, but I like pizza more.

"We have to bring this kind of information into our churches, into our workplaces, into our communities," said the 69-year-old senator from atop the step-up box behind the lectern.

"Look for me on the Hopkins track," she said as she departed. "I'll be the one eating the apple."

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear audio clips of selected Susan Reimer columns, go to baltimoresun.com/reimer.

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