Susan L. McGuire experienced chest pains on several occasions, according to a close friend.
When she scheduled an appointment to check things out, it was too late.
McGuire, a 45-year-old legal secretary, suffered a fatal heart attack at her workplace, just as she was heading to the doctor's office last month. Colleagues at the Baltimore law firm Saul Ewing, where the mother of two children worked for 20 years, tried to save her, administrating CPR and using a portable defibrillator. Word of McGuire's death quickly spread throughout Baltimore, in part because so many female workers related to her life as a woman juggling work demands and family concerns. And her tragedy is prompting a renewed urgency among workers at several downtown businesses and in city government to schedule time for heart screenings and other health-related checkups.
A half-dozen law firms are joining Baltimore City government to provide time off next week as an incentive for women to attend a free heart health fair downtown sponsored by the nonprofit Sister to Sister Foundation. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the country, yet advocates say growing personal and professional demands are making it easier for workers to neglect their health.
"As women, we take for granted heart health," said Marci Gordon, a partner at Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll's Baltimore office, which is providing one-hour paid leave for hourly workers to attend the fair. "And to hear about someone who passed away from a heart attack in our community and who worked several blocks away, it startled us and made us realize we need to be proactive about taking care of our health."
Despite the prevalence of heart disease-related death among women, many don't think of heart attacks and strokes as a threat to them, according to a 2003 study by the American Heart Association. People still think of heart disease as a man's problem, even though it kills more women than all forms of cancer combined, health advocates say.
"There's a big awareness problem," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the Baltimore health commissioner. "Women have all sorts of serious complications from heart disease, including unexpected death."
The city is giving all nonessential female employees two-hour paid leave to attend the health fair Tuesday at the Baltimore Convention Center. The city has provided similar leaves for other health-related functions.
Next week's fair marks the fourth annual event in Baltimore for the local chapter of Sister to Sister, which promotes heart disease prevention among women. Organizers expect more than 2,500 people to attend. The group holds similar events across the country.
Allison Buchalter, campaign director for Sister to Sister in Baltimore, said the health fair offers busy working women convenient access to free health screenings and other information on diet, nutrition and recognizing heart attack symptoms. Men tend to feel chest pain, while women experience extreme fatigue, headaches or dizziness.
And women, especially, need the extra push to consider their well being as a priority, Buchalter said.
"I think women probably delay going to see a doctor more just because they're pulled into so many directions," she said. "If you're a working mother, you have so many different people and things to care about, it's difficult. Where do you find time between caring for your family and getting what you need to do at work? Women put themselves last all the time."
Ruth Fry, Saul Ewing's office manager and McGuire's close friend, is joining other colleagues in pressing family members, friends and Baltimore businesses to participate in the free heart screenings in honor of their co-worker. Saul Ewing is giving its 120 employees an extra hour beyond their lunch break to encourage attendance at the health fair.
"It definitely heightened everyone's alertness that you've got to take care of yourself," said Fry, a member of Sister to Sister's Baltimore council that helped organize the fair. "You only have one body and one heart."
In fact, Susan M. Handy, an administrative assistant at Saul Ewing, visited her doctor almost immediately after McGuire's death.
"I've been hearing one by one from different people here going and setting up appointments to get checked," she said. "I think, unfortunately, it has woken up a lot of people."
Fry also sent an e-mail to members of the Association of Legal Administrators in Maryland, describing what happened to McGuire and to encourage female employees to attend the health fair.
"For me, this was a personal loss as Sue happened to be my best friend, both on the job and out of work," wrote Fry, who was one of several members of the firm's CPR team who unsuccessfully tried to revive McGuire. "Sue was nominated in 2006 as one of the Daily Record's Unsung Legal Secretary Heroes. Our firm is still recovering from this tragic loss. Sue was loved by everyone, she was an exceptional human being and all-around great employee."