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It could have been a very different outcome

May 2014

Forty-eight New Zealand women lose their battle with heart disease every week, making it the single biggest killer of women in this country. 

For Christchurch woman Dianne Parsons, heart disease was far from her mind when she began experiencing breathlessness when walking short distances. Yet just three days before her 60th birthday in April this year, Dianne was diagnosed with angina and an 80 percent blockage of her left coronary artery. 

The very next week she underwent a life-saving angiogram and angioplasty procedure at St George’s Hospital and was given a second chance, making her one of the lucky ones. 

This month (May) the New Zealand Heart Foundation is running the ‘Go Red for Women’ campaign to fund vital research into women’s heart disease and to prevent more premature deaths. Women suffer from heart disease differently to men, with the condition typically presenting later and being less responsive to standard treatment.  

Dianne’s story is a familiar one to Dr Clive Low, cardiologist and chairman of the Heart Centre at St George’s Hospital, who says there is a misconception that heart disease affects mainly men. During the past year 27 percent of cardiac patients at St George’s were women. 

“The number of women with heart disease will continue to increase with our ageing population, decreased activity and inappropriate diet. The common heart conditions that I am seeing in women are angina, heart attacks and valvular heart disease, which is when the heart valves don’t work as they should.” 

In Dianne’s case, she had been experiencing symptoms for nearly two years but didn’t think anything of it. 

“I thought it couldn’t possibly be heart disease at 60, and put it to the back of my mind. I eventually went to my GP and was sent for an exercise test. What I thought was going to be a 15 minute treadmill walk was stopped after four minutes with a positive reading for angina.  

“The diagnosis was a huge shock to me and I was completely overwhelmed when I realised how serious it was. It could have been a very different outcome.” 

The importance of educating women on the risks of heart disease and how to prevent it should not be overlooked, adds Dr Low, who takes a proactive approach with his patients. 

“Our approach is to construct a fence at the top of the cliff rather than provide the ambulances at the bottom. After any cardiac procedure at St George’s Hospital, patients are invited to attend a cardiac rehabilitation course, and their specialist will develop an individual risk reduction and surveillance plan. 

“Patients leave us informed and aware of the future risks that heart disease poses to them and their family.” 

Dianne encouraged women to speak out and talk to their GP if they experience any worrying symptoms, which can include tightness, squeezing, pressure or ache in the chest, breathlessness, and pain between the shoulder blades. 

“Please don’t dismiss any niggles or concerns. We all live such busy lives and for most Cantabrians it’s been stressful times over the past three years.  Its not until we sit down with a cuppa or take time to smell the roses that you realise things may not be as normal as first thought.”


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