MIAMI - To mark this World Heart Day, doctors want to remind everyone that women's heart health is often overlooked. Studies show women who suffer from cardiac symptoms wait longer for emergency care than men, and it can result in permanent heart damage or death.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says half of all women are unaware of that fact. Experts say misconceptions and misunderstandings about cardiac risk for women are common even among medical professionals.
Dr. Harmony Reynolds, who studied women and men who report symptoms of chest pain at emergency rooms, found that women wait an average of 11 minutes longer to receive care, a serious problem for those who are suffering a heart attack.
"Every minute that interruption is there, heart muscle is dying," Dr. Reynolds said. "I have heard story after story of women getting ignored in the emergency room, getting told that it almost certainly wasn't their heart, it was probably stress."
For women, signs of heart attack can include chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea and severe arm pain.
When she was 61, Katherine Fitzgerald suffered a heart attack while she was at her son's high school graduation party. She didn't realize what was happening, but she felt symptoms she had never experienced before. But when paramedics arrived, she says they missed it.
"I couldn't breathe, and I felt like my right elbow was broken," Fitzgerald recalled. "I explained to them my symptoms, the pain and everything, and the paramedic said, 'Oh, you're having a panic attack.' And I said, 'I'm not having a panic attack, I'm dying.' And he goes, 'Oh, that's what people say when they're having a panic attack.'"
Days later, the attorney and mother of three went to a hospital on her own. She needed a two stents and the delay in treatment left her with permanent heart damage.
Fitzgerald is now receiving care from Dr. Reynolds and says everyone should know the symptoms of heart attack in women and be ready to advocate for their care.
"Any woman that you love, a sister, a mother, a wife, know those symptoms, and if it happens to her, have her back and get her checked out," she said.
Having the muscle to demand care could make all the difference for her heart.
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