Go Red Takes Aim at Cardiovascular Disease
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY CASSIE MILLER
The cascade of tragedy that surrounded 2016 was due to an abnormally large amount of celebrity deaths. From actors and singers to athletes and icons, 2016 did open our eyes to one thing – the importance of heart health.
Cardiovascular disease can strike suddenly and without prior issue. The umbrella term covers everything from blocked blood vessels to conditions that affect heart rhythm, valves and muscles. No one is immune to heart disease.
Carrie Fisher, the late actress famous for her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars, died of cardiac arrest after suffering a heart attack a few days prior. Days later, her mother, actress Debbie Reynolds died of an apparent stroke.
Through all of those who have lost their lives to heart disease, we finally begin to grasp that our health should take precedence over all other concerns. The American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign aims to eradicate the disease in women through awareness, preventative action and education.
At age 26, Vicki Kann began experiencing heavy heart palpitations. The palpitations lasted all day with no relief and made daily tasks, like climbing stairs, impossible. At one point, Kann remembers sitting on the couch and visibly seeing her chest heave with the palpitations.
In the midst of planning a wedding, Kann mistook her symptoms for anxiety. After the wedding, when Kann noticed that her symptoms were still present, her husband urged her to visit her doctor.
Kann’s doctor referred her to a cardiologist, citing irregularities in her heartbeat. Tests revealed that Kann had Premature Ventricular Contractions (PVCs). The cardiologist recommended beta blockers, a medication that manages arrhythmia by slowing the heart beat and minimizing the force of the beats. The ultimate goal of beta blockers is to get the heart to beat in a consistent rhythm.
Being so young, Kann hated the idea of taking a powerful medication for the rest of her life, and since the PVCs had not damaged her heart, she declined the beta blockers. That was in 2001.
She recalls her younger self’s rationale, “I didn’t want to be on heart medication at 26. I was kind of hard-headed, so I declined it. I just thought, ‘This is how I am going to have to live my life.’”
In 2008, tragedy struck.
Kann’s father suffered a massive heart attack that ultimately took his life. With his passing, Kann began wondering if she made the right decision seven years ago to forgo treatment. Another two years passed before she sought medical attention.
After a nine-year lapse, Kann returned to the cardiologist, anxious to see if her heart had suffered any more damage since her PVCs were discovered.
This time, a different cardiologist put her on two heart medications – Metoprolol and Lisinopril. The first, a beta blocker, and the second was for high blood pressure and heart failure.
While the medications did help with her palpitations, the side effects were harsh and restrictive. Feeling fatigued, Kann stopped doing many of the activities that she loved. Her son’s playful pranks now scared her. She feared they might actually “give her a heart attack.”
Kann stopped going to the gym, working out had become laborious and the fear that something might happen to her during a workout prevented her from resuming her normal workout routines.
“Knowing that I was on heart medication, it was not just physical, it became mental,” says Kann.
For three years, Kann dealt with the restrictions and side effects her medications caused. When she returned to her cardiologist, he stated that there wasn’t much else that he could do and referred Kann to Dr. Chinmay Patel, an electrophysiologist at PinnacleHealth CardioVascular Institute.
Patel ordered Kann to wear a heart monitor for a 24-hour period. The monitor showed that Kann’s heart was beating 30,000 extra beats a day. To put that number in perspective, doctors normally start getting concerned at about 2,000 extra beats a day.
Patel prescribed Flecainide, a medication to treat irregular heart beats. Now 38, Kann was on three heart medications and had a heart-pump malfunction.
Still not feeling herself, Kann was crushed when she got a letter from the Central Pennsylvania Blood Bank stating that she could no longer donate blood because she was taking Flecainide. A type-O donor, Kann gave blood frequently. Now, it was one more thing on a growing list of activities she could no longer do.
In July 2014, Kann was back at Patel’s office after experiencing numbness in her arm, and excessive sweating brought her to the emergency room. This time, Patel had a solution that would take Kann off of all of her medications and allow her to lead a normal life again.
Called cardiac ablation, the procedure delivers heat to misfiring areas of the heart, cauterizing the areas that were emitting the abnormal electrical pulses and causing her PVCs. In all, 19 areas in Kann’s heart were cauterized.
In September, Kann underwent the procedure and was home the same day. Within two weeks, Kann says she was back to her normal self, a self that she hadn’t seen in several years. As for her condition, Kann is 100-percent healed. She no longer experiences the PVCs, she’s back at the gym with no restrictions and free of all medications, which means she is able to donate blood again.
“I got me back,” she says.
Looking back at her father’s passing, Kann wishes she had known the signs and symptoms of heart disease when he was experiencing them.
Kann offers advice to others, “Stay healthy, exercise and seek medical advice.”
This year, Kann is a member of The American Heart Association’s Circle of Red with co-worker and “fairy heart mother,” Shelly Matter. She also plans to run a 10k.
Thankful – the only word needed for Shelly Matter to describe her experience with heart disease. Matter, who does new business development for H.B. McClure, remembers the holiday season of 2015.
“I’m not going to the ER, it’s the week of Christmas – I have too much to do!”
Things could have ended very differently for Matter, who almost ignored her symptoms. Thankfully, her daughter, a cardiac nurse at Holy Spirit–A Geisinger Affiliate, insisted that she go to urgent care.
Matter arrived at urgent care at 8 p.m. By midnight, she was in the emergency room discussing pacemakers with the doctors. Matter had pushed herself through a full day of work, despite noticeable symptoms. Walking short distances in the office made her feel faint. She was fatigued, but she assumed that the holiday season was just taking a toll on her body.
After extensive tests, doctors diagnosed Matter with a left bundle block but could not find the cause of her condition. Eager to get home for the holidays, Matter underwent pacemaker surgery on Friday after just being seen on Monday for what she thought was the flu.
At 50, Matter admits her knowledge of pacemakers and their operation led her to some misconceptions.
“My impression of a pacemaker, before I was familiar with it, was that it works all the time to keep your heart beating at the correct pace, but that’s not true. If your heart drops below a certain rate, it signals it to pace at the rate that it should,” Matter says.
Pacemakers also come with a stigma that they are meant for seniors and the elderly, but that, too, is a misconception.
When doctors and specialists tried to comfort Matter about needing a pacemaker, she responded, “I’m fine with it. I can’t walk to the bathroom by myself with a heart rate in the 30s.”
She continues, “If a pacemaker is going to give me back the level of life that I am used to, let’s go.”
Matter admits that, at first, she didn’t take her symptoms seriously. Urging others not to do the same, she offers, “Don’t ignore symptoms. Not matter how small you think they are. Go get checked out.”
Exactly a year later, Matter has had a follow-up visit and has received a clean bill of health. She continues to advocate for heart health and is participating in the American Heart Association’s Circle of Red campaign for the fifth year.
What to Look For
One of the most recognizable symptoms of a heart attack is chest pain. However, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that young women (below the age of 55) are less likely to have chest pain.
This means that women, especially young women, need to pay close attention to other symptoms. The following are signs and symptoms that could indicate a heart attack:
• Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, neck, jaw or stomach
• Shortness of breath, with or without chest pain
• Nausea and lightheadedness
• Cold sweats
If you or someone you know has experienced these symptoms, seek medical attention as soon as possible. For more information on heart attacks, PVCs and other forms of heart disease, please visit heart.org.