I am 1 in 3.
At 22, I experienced multiple episodes of sustained ventricular tachycardia otherwise known as VT or V-tach. The Mayo Clinic defines ventricular tachycardia as a type of abnormal heart rhythm. It occurs when the lower chamber of the heart beats too fast to pump well and the body doesn’t receive enough oxygenated blood. VT can result in loss of consciousness or even cardiac arrest. Imagine you just ran up four flights of stairs as fast as you possibly can and your heart is beating excessively fast. Multiply that by two hundred and that’s VT.
I am incredibly lucky to be alive and share my story. If my symptoms had gone undiagnosed, that might not be the case.
After my initial diagnosis of VT, I spent a few months in and out of the hospital receiving treatments. First with noninvasive surgeries and finally, after much consideration, with open heart surgery where my doctors placed an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD) in my chest.
An ICD is a battery-powered device placed under the skin that keeps track of your heart rate. Thin wires connect the ICD to your heart. If an abnormal heart rhythm is detected the device will deliver an electric shock to restore a normal heartbeat. If you have ever gone through security with me on Capitol Hill, you know this makes for a good time.
I often joke about my device, but it provides a lifeline that many others are not guaranteed. I was privileged to have had access to such quality care when my symptoms started and to have received treatment at one of the best hospitals in the nation. My team of doctors are extremely thoughtful and care deeply for my health. They remain in constant contact.
You might think my story is extremely rare, but it’s not. February is American Heart Month. We celebrated Go Red for Women, a national campaign that aims to raise awareness about cardiovascular disease originally geared towards women.
If you scroll through the testimonials on the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women page, you will see hundreds of young women just like me who have similar stories. They are outwardly healthy but inside something is not working correctly. Why is this more common than we realize?
A 2012 survey conducted by the American Heart Association found about half of the women interviewed were aware that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women. However, only 13% said it was their greatest personal health risk. Unfortunately, women have believed for too long that cardiovascular disease is a man’s issue. Men have been taught the signs and symptoms of a heart attack, while women have not.
Take for instance, my boss, Governor Ridge. He suffered a heart attack a little over two years ago. He immediately recognized the signs and symptoms at the time and made a phone call that saved his life. In the same American Heart Association study, only 65% of women said the first thing they would do if they thought they were having a heart attack was call 9–1–1.
The disparities between men and women do not stop there. Women are 1.5 times less likely than men to be referred to cardiac rehabilitation. Women are more likely than men to die within 1 or 5 years after suffering a heart attack, particularly if they are African American. Among Medicare patients, men are two to three times more likely than women to receive an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator for the prevention of sudden cardiac death.
Women have been underrepresented in clinical trials, generally making up only about 20% of enrolled patients. This is even though women represent 40% to 50% of participants in longitudinal studies and registries.
What can we do to close this gap between men and women’s heart health?
The simple answer is research and continued awareness. The more complicated one, I will leave up to the doctors and scientists.
In 1991, Bernadine Healy was appointed as the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As the first female director, she prioritized including women in research studies and created the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) housed at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
The WHI has provided vital data on strategies to prevent heart disease in women and continues to work in this area. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute offers funding in multiple areas for heart research and provides competitive funding for commercialization of technologies. This includes funding for medical devices.
We need to continue to fund this vital research and projects that provide life-saving devices to individuals. During the last budget cycle, NIH received a $2.6B increase. Since 2016, NIH has received a 38.6% increase in funding. This has allowed the NHLBI to increase its budget over the last four fiscal years and hopefully, we continue to see dramatic increases in the years to come.
Unfortunately, the Administration did propose cuts for NHLBI in last year’s budget, but Congress appropriated above those levels. As it stands now, NHLBI invests approximately $3B annually in medical research related to heart, lung, blood and sleep disorders. Without proper research and commercialization of technology, we are potentially letting innovations and subsequently lives slip through the cracks.
Increased appropriations are not the only solution. We need to continue to educate both men and women on the dangers of cardiovascular disease. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the NHLBI provide educational materials on cardiovascular disease in hopes to raise awareness of the issue. They promote February as American Heart Month and offer ways to get involved. They have outreach toolkits and strong campaigns on social media.
The CDC and NHLBI are not the only ones promoting cardiovascular health. Our friends at Independence Blue Cross Foundation also promote heart health and celebrate Heart Month each year. The Foundation helps to support the Philadelphia American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women Campaign. They assist by providing education and bringing awareness to cardiovascular health in the Philadelphia region.
The Foundation also ran its Healthy Hearts Initiative, which supported programs to increase access to free heart screenings and education for children and families. Through the Healthy Hearts Initiative, the Foundation funded free CPR and automated external defibrillator (AED) training to prevent deaths from sudden cardiac arrest. The Foundation provided life-saving training, education and brought greater awareness to the community.
Cardiovascular disease is preventable in most cases with healthy life choices. Through initiatives like Healthy Hearts and Go Red for Women, we can continue to educate individuals. We can also raise awareness all in hopes to breakdown the stereotypes that surround women and cardiovascular health.
We must continue to prioritize research and encourage the development of innovative technologies. And most importantly we need care for our hearts.
Will you join us in celebrating Heart Month?