By Kylie Blanchard

Mary K. Vetter knew something wasn’t right when she began noticing pain starting in the palms of her hands and radiating up her arms along with shortness of breath. At the time she was 49-years-old and after visiting her doctor, she was referred to a lung specialist.

“I was given inhalers with steroids which just enhanced my symptoms,” she says, adding this was in an attempt to treat her for what was thought to be allergies. “I went back to the lung specialist because after a few months I couldn’t even walk from a handicapped parking spot into a building.”

Vetter says one of the best decisions she made was to insist on additional tests to determine the cause of her symptoms. While taking a pulmonary stress test to examine her lung function, it was revealed something was very wrong with her heart.

After being introduced to Dr. Eshoo at St. Alexius’s Heart & Lung Clinic, a cardiac stress test was performed. Blockage was found in the arteries around her heart and, two weeks later, an angiogram test exposed a congenital heart defect that contributed to the blockage. “They told me it couldn’t be fixed with just a stint and I had a double bypass the next morning.”

Now fully recovered from her open-heart surgery, Vetter says she has enjoyed having more energy. “If you don’t have blood flow, you just don’t feel well,” she says. “I feel so good now. I am more active and I can go for walks without pain.”

Vetter learned a valuable lesson from her experience that she feels is important to share with other women. “Anytime you feel the slightest ‘twinge’ or something doesn’t feel right, don’t just pass it off. Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor,” she says. “You have to be your own best advocate because you know your body.”

Education is Key
February is American Heart Month and marks the American Heart Association’s push to grab the attention of all Americans regarding their heart health. During this time, the organization also targets women through its Go Red™ for Women campaign.

“It is so important for women to know the signs of a heart attack and get immediate medical treatment, but also work to prevent heart disease through a healthy lifestyle,” says Joan Enderle, Communications and Go Red™ Director at the American Heart Association, North Dakota. “We want them to be an advocate for their own health.”

Enderle offers some startling statistics when it comes to the heart health of women in the state and across the nation. “Heart disease is the number one killer of women in North Dakota and many women are unaware they are at risk,” she says. “More women die of cardiovascular diseases, including stroke, than all forms of cancer combined.”

In 2009, 32.4 percent of the deaths in North Dakota were caused by cardiovascular diseases, including heart disease, heart attack and stroke, as compared to 21.4 percent of deaths caused by all forms of cancer combined.

The American Heart Association’s Go Red™ for Women movement works to educate women on the risk factors for heart disease and to promote lifestyle changes that can benefit heart health. The American Heart Association has determined the following risk factors as controllable or treatable with the help of a healthcare professional or changes in lifestyle factors:
• Blood Cholesterol
• Blood Pressure
• Smoking
• Physical Activity
• Diet
• Obesity
• Blood Sugar

“Ninety-percent of women have one or more risk factors for heart disease and 80-percent of cardiovascular disease is preventable with lifestyle changes,” says Enderle, adding it is important women take these risk factors and lifestyle changes seriously. “Women are more likely to die of their first heart attack and nationwide 26-percent of women die within a year of having a heart attack, compared to 19-percent of men.”

Making Lifestyle Changes
“Heart disease used to be seen as more of a ‘man’s disease,’ but we women caught up with them and, unfortunately, galloped passed them,” says Melanie Carvell, director of the Medcenter One Women’s Health Center, a women-focused fitness facility.

“It’s often such a silent killer and we just can’t see what is going on,” she notes. “Sometimes the first symptom women have of heart disease is sudden death.”

In addition to regular check-ups with a physician, Carvell says physical activity is a strong factor in preventing heart disease. “If you are going to pick one thing that will help all the risk factors, it would be getting regular exercise.”

And she notes an important component of sticking with an exercise routine and lifestyle changes is developing a support system. “Join a group, join a club, or join league,” says Carvell. “If we enjoy it, we are just going to be more likely to stick with it.”

The American Heart Association in North Dakota is involved in all aspects of saving lives, says Enderle. “This includes funding two research projects at North Dakota State University, working with hospitals and healthcare providers across the state on stroke and heart systems of care, working with schools and worksites on promoting healthy eating and physical activity, advocating for policies and funding, and collaborating with the North Dakota Department of Health Heart Disease and Stroke Program on promoting the Million Hearts Campaign.”

“Ultimately, we just want people to say ‘Yes!’ to healthy behaviors as a way to prevent heart disease,” says Enderle.

For additional information on women’s heart health and healthy heart living, contact the American Heart Association of North Dakota website at or visit


Signs of a Heart Attack in Women:

• Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of the chest. It may lasts more than a few minutes or go away and come back.

• Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

• Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.

• Other signs including breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

• As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms including shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.

If you have any of these signs, don’t wait more than five minutes before calling for help. Call 911 and get to a hospital right away.

Source: American Heart Association/Go Red™ for Women