By: Patti Boccassini
Heart disease and stroke is affecting women of all ages and backgrounds throughout central Pennsylvania. The American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement and Penn State Hershey Heart and Vascular Institute are fighting to bring women’s struggle against heart disease to light.
These six women are all heart survivors, and all have very different stories to tell. Through the support of family and friends, the care of Penn State Hershey Heart and Vascular Institute and a survivor’s determination, these women are living proof that women can survive and thrive after heart disease.
Each year, on the first Friday in February, thousands of hospitals, small businesses, corporations, schools and individuals help raise awareness and funds to fight heart disease in women – from simply wearing red to organizing a fundraising event.
Harrisburg Magazine caught up with five area women to learn about how the No. 1 killer of women has affected their lives.
What has been your experience with Heart Disease & Stroke?
Dawn Vernooy: I was born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a moderately complex form of congenital heart disease. I have had open-heart surgery twice.
Once when I was 4 to repair my defect, and again – four years ago – when I was 35 to replace my pulmonary valve.
Since the scar tissue from my previous surgeries puts me at risk for Sudden Cardiac Death, I also have an implanted defibrillator. As my replaced valve calcifies and my defibrillator batteries wear out, I will continue to need surgeries throughout my life.
Kim Collins: I was 51 when I had my heart attack. I went to the gym as usual for my morning workout, and after only 10 minutes into my class, I was short of breath. It felt like I was having some heartburn.
I had not experienced any other symptoms up to this point. I don’t smoke and I’m very health-conscious about what I eat and I have always exercised on a regular basis.
I ended up in the emergency room, and I was told I was having a heart attack. I had a 100 percent blocked artery and now have two stints.
Sharon Shaak: On Easter in 2000, I had pressure on my chest, which felt like someone squeezing my heart with their hand. My daughter took me to the hospital where they, after four days of tests, put in a stent.
I was fine for two weeks then the pressure came back-back to the hospital and another stent. This one was called the widow maker, a little one but still the same. This time I made it four weeks – even made it back to work before another pressure and then another stent.
The doctor said he had never seen blockages come on that fast. He said we should go to another doctor, so we did.
That was five years ago. I have been blockage free since. My cholesterol was 350 five years ago and is now 135. No new stents.
Heather Moore: At 29, I was pregnant with my first child. In my eighth month of pregnancy, I started to develop symptoms of extreme shortness of breath and swollen ankles.
The doctors had a difficult time diagnosing my symptoms because, during pregnancy, women encounter similar symptoms. My diagnosis was Peripartum Cardiomyopathy (PPCM), and my baby boy was stillborn. I survived on a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) for over three months.
During that time on the LVAD, I developed a blood clot, which caused me to suffer a stroke.
Mia Breen: On March 27, 2003, around 12:30 a.m., as we were cruising somewhere in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, I was down in the formal dining hall for the midnight buffet. I sat down, placed my napkin on my lap and reached for my fork. It was as if a stranger was reaching instead.
My right hand became completely alien to me as it moved out of my control, floating up and down. I looked over to the right, and the face of my neighbor was melting, like pouring water over a mirror’s reflection.
I tried to talk, but I couldn’t. All I could do was hide my face with my left hand in embarrassment. I had no idea what was happening to me, and other people at the table started to notice.
They tried to stand me up to go on a wheelchair. I remember nothing at that point. I found myself later in the cruise ship infirmary. After being sent back to my cabin, the rest of the night I suffered multiple seizures. I found a piece of paper and a pen, and I tried to write, hoping I could give it to someone to call for me. Using my left hand, I started to write a number, but all that was left on the paper were shapes. It looked like hieroglyphics. Feeling defeated and realizing there was nothing else for me to do at that point, I fell onto the bed.
I felt the worst headache I have ever had in my life. I didn’t wake up until 2 p.m. I was told to return to the infirmary to fill out insurance information. I was sent to the emergency room at the clinic in Cozumel, given heparin and was ordered a CT scan. I was admitted and then escorted to my room.
I still was unable to communicate clearly. They were saying I was having a stroke, and I needed immediate attention. I had physicians calling from the States, advocating for my care and pushing for my release. Medi-vac flew out from Texas to pick me up. After resting peacefully for the first time since that midnight buffet, I arrived at the HMC intensive care unit.
I was found to have had an embolic stroke. I shortly had open-heart surgery to close several holes in my heart. I regained my strength both physically and verbally through months of physical and speech therapy.
Barbara Warner: I never had a heart attack or stroke. I had a medical procedure done incorrectly causing me to have a vascular problem. I suffered for 10 months until I went to Penn State Hershey Heart & Vascular Institute. I was in surgery for 11 hours, I was told if I hadn’t come in when I did I wouldn’t of lasted through the weekend.
Penn State Hershey Heart & Vascular Institute saved my life.
How has this affected you?
Dawn Vernooy: I used to think that facing more surgeries would make me feel weak, and I was afraid, anxious and angry. But, because of the care and support I have received, I feel absolutely fabulous.
Kim Collins: I certainly never thought I would have a story to tell about being a heart-attack survivor.
Sharon Shaak: I watch what I eat, and I exercise.
Heather Moore: As a result, I cannot have any more children because my heart is damaged.
Mia Breen: As a stroke survivor, my experience and recovery has challenged me beyond measure. I refused to sign disability papers and earned a nursing degree in its place. Life does go on after a stroke. Am I the same? No, I’d like to think I’m better.
Barbara Warner: It has affected me greatly. My experience has made me more concerned of those who are surviving and the affect it can have. I try to offer any comfort and advice I can.
Why do you support Go Red for Women?
Dawn Vernooy: I support Go Red for Women because I want women to live lives filled with strength, vigor, and enthusiasm. Recognizing risks, knowing where to receive care and facing treatment – even when that treatment may include surgery – has made me feel safe, confident and protected.
Kim Collins: Most women ignore symptoms and just think they will go away. If I would have ignored my symptoms, I would not be here today. Being young and in shape doesn’t mean it can’t happen to you. Just look at me.
Sharon Shaak: I wouldn’t want any woman to go through what I did. When a doctor says that you are borderline, ask what you can do to improve it. Don’t wait until something happens, like I did. I know now. You want to be there for your loved ones. Life is important to live.
Heather Moore: I support and volunteer for Go Red for Women because I want women to know that heart disease and stroke does not discriminant, it can happen at any age and to any race or gender. Also, I want women to be aware of the condition, Peripartum Cardiomyopathy, and how it can affect pregnant women.
Mia Breen: I’m proud to support Go Red for Woman, not only to help raise awareness for prevention, but also to help inspire those who struggle through their recovery to keep challenging themselves.
Barbara Warner: Attention needs to be paid to women’s health. Women need to be made aware of their own health.