Put Yourself First to Guard Against Heart Disease - February is Go Red Month

Diane Klinger never expected a heart attack at age 52. But on Sept. 1, 2005, while visiting her grown daughter in central Minnesota, she knew something was wrong. "I noticed a heavy feeling in the left side of my chest, then my left arm felt funny and I became short of breath. But still, I couldn't believe it was a heart attack," recalls Klinger from her home in Valley City, N.D.

Diane Klinger never expected a heart attack at age 52. But on Sept. 1, 2005, while visiting her grown daughter in central Minnesota, she knew something was wrong. "I noticed a heavy feeling in the left side of my chest, then my left arm felt funny and I became short of breath. But still, I couldn't believe it was a heart attack," recalls Klinger from her home in Valley City, N.D.

Klinger's daughter drove her to the local emergency room where she was assessed and stabilized. An ambulance rushed her to St. Cloud and further tests revealed a severe blockage. "I was shocked," says Klinger. "A heart attack in my early 50s? My health habits were pretty good, my cholesterol and blood pressure were fine, and there was no history of heart disease."

Following a successful procedure to treat the blockage, Klinger returned to Fargo. Her care continued at MeritCare Heart Center, which was recently named a Thomson 100 Top Hospital®: Cardiovascular for the eighth time in nine years. At MeritCare, Klinger met Susan Farkas, M.D., board-certified cardiologist. "A woman having a heart attack in her early 50s may sound unusual, but it happens," says Dr. Farkas. "Heart disease is the number-one killer of women, and we now know that younger women, too, can be affected. It's not just a disease that affects women 65 and older."

Making changes
At the recommendation of Dr. Farkas, Klinger participated in MeritCare Cardiac Rehabilitation – an 8-12 week course of supervised exercise, education and support. "It really motivated me," says Klinger. "As a nurse, I was active as far as walking, but to strengthen my heart, I needed to do more. Cardiac rehab really helped with exercise, eating healthy and reducing stress."

Stress emerged as a key factor in Klinger's heart attack. "I'd been in a abusive marriage for years and it was ending in divorce, plus I was just starting a new job," she says. "The stress at that time was considerable, but I had no idea the impact this could have on my heart."

The role of stress in women's heart disease is another area of advancing knowledge. "Women in particular need to pay attention to their stress level because it can have a pronounced effect on the heart," says Dr. Farkas.

Klinger's success in reducing stress has taken many avenues – regular exercise, healthy eating, supportive friends and family, journal writing, good communication with her new husband, Hal, and dancing. "After my heart attack, I honestly thought life was over. I didn't know how I was ever going to function again, but to my surprise, I bounced back," she says. "Today, I see a bright future. I'm the happiest I've been in a long time."

Steps you can take
As MeritCare's "Go Red for Women" spokesperson, Dr. Farkas advises women: "Put yourself first. Assess your heart disease risk, then work to reduce your risk – one change at a time." Steps include:
  • Stop smoking
  • Keep diabetes well-controlled
  • Know your numbers (cholesterol, blood pressure)
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Know your family history
  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat healthy
  • Manage stress
  • Respond to symptoms

"When women have heart attacks, the symptoms may be subtle," says Dr. Farkas. "That's why it's important to pay attention to changes in the body, such as discomfort in the chest, arms, jaws or shoulders; shortness of breath; nausea and fatigue. Take symptoms seriously and get help."

If you are concerned about your risk for heart disease, call MeritCare Heart Center (701) 234-2371 or (800) 437-4010, ext. 2371.