This blog entry has been written, erased, rewritten more times than I can count. I think it’s because it’s very difficult to put on paper that the one thing that defined Carrie was the exact thing that took her away: her heart.
Carrie’s heart embodied kindness. And it had been without agenda. When she did something nice for someone it wasn’t because she was seeking recognition, she did it because it came from deep within. This was something that did not go unnoticed by everyone who knew her. She inspired us, still does, to approach the world with simplicity.
On March 3, 2013 Carrie collapsed from a massive heart attack associated with an acute cardiac arrhythmia caused by an undetected right aortic anomaly. It was said that this is similar to sudden death in athletes. In fact, just a few months after she passed, former Olympian Mesler Meskerem Legesse, also 8 months pregnant, died in a similar fashion.
Carrie had been healthy her entire life . She was thin, active, a healthy eater, non-smoker. Her pregnancy had also been as equally uneventful.
There were really no red flags.
Or so we thought.
Carrie’s right aortic anomaly had been there since birth, causing part of her heart’s blood vessels to pump blood in the wrong direction. If it had been detected then it could have been repaired. But because it went undetected, Carrie had unknowingly suffered at least one heart attack prior to her death as evidenced by scar tissue on her heart.
All who knew her would give anything to turn back the clocks. But we can’t. And since she was all about helping others, we owe it to her to bring awareness to heart disease amongst women.
Some fast overall facts about heart disease:
- Coronary heart disease, the most common, is the #1 killer of women.
- 1 in 3 female deaths are caused by it.
- Approximately 44 million women are affected by it
- 80% of heart disease and stroke events can be prevented
- Warning signs for women are not the same as warning signs for men
- Heart disease can strike a woman at any age-Carrie was 39 years old when she passed away
- Heart disease can strike even the fittest, healthiest of women
- Rheumatic heart disease is caused by one or multiple bouts of rheumatic fever which can scar the valves, weaken the heart muscle, or damaging the heart sac.
- Ischemic heart disease-disease caused by coronary artery narrowing
- Hypertensive heart disease is caused by high blood pressure which puts strain on the heart and its blood vessels.
- Inflammatory heart disease-this is inflammation of the heart muscle and dependent on the particular muscle.
- Cerebrovascular disease-this is a disease associated with the brain’s blood vessels.
- Congenital Heart Defects-this is a heart disease that a person is born with. It can be a hole in the heart, abnormal heart chambers, or an anomaly like what Carrie had.
- Heart failure-this happens when the heart’s muscle becomes too weak to pump properly.
The most important pieces to this entry, however, are how women can detect and prevent heart disease.
Symptoms of a heart disease caused by narrowed/blocked blood vessels. Recognizing the early symptoms of a heart attack is critical. As previously mentioned, women can experience different symptoms than men. For example, they can experience:
- Pain in jaw
- Discomfort in their chest. It can start at the center of the chest, lasts for a few minutes, then might go away/come back. It can feel like someone is squeezing your chest or just an uncomfortable pressure
- Tingling in both arms
- Cold sweats
This type of heart disease can be prevented by becoming intimate with your individual risk factors. Changes in diet and lifestyle, for example, can decrease your risk of heart attacks and disease by as much as 80%. More importantly, whether you have one risk factor or multiple risk factors, educating yourself on these symptoms that I outlined above may save your life in the event that you do experience a heart attack. Some risk factors associated with heart disease are:
- Physical inactivity
- Fluttering in chest
- Racing heartbeat (tachycardia)
- Slow heartbeat (bradycardia)
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Fainting (syncope) or near fainting
Symptoms of heart disease caused by heart defects. Heart defects are somewhat rare as approximately 9 in 1,000 babies will be born with a defect. However, in Carrie’s case, her heart defect went undetected, so it’s important that people look at the signs of a heart defect both for infants and in adults.
Infants with more serious congenital heart defects will have symptoms like swelling in legs or abdomen, pale gray or blue skin, and shortness of breath during feeding. Signs of less serious heart defects but can eventually be life-threatening:
- Getting tired easily during exercise
- Swelling in the hands, feet, or ankles
- Getting short of breath during any sort of activity
Newborn babies can be screened for defects for less than $4 each via a pulse oximetry screening that uses a light to measure the percentage of O2 in the blood.
Heart disease symptoms caused by valvular heart disease. The heart has four valves and can sometimes narrow or start leaking. My mom, for instance, has a disease called Mitral Valve Prolapse where the valve doesn’t close properly. Symptoms of valvular disease can include:
- Shortness of breath
- Irregular heartbeat
- Swollen feet or ankles
- Chest pain
- Fainting (syncope)
Some great resources that have in-depth information on heart disease and prevention are:
The American Heart Association: https://www.goredforwomen.org/home/know-your-risk/
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/hdw/signs