What most women don't know about heart disease

Posted at 6:56 PM, Apr 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-24 19:32:07-04

"You've made a mistake."

That was Sandra Wright's first thought when doctors told her that her persistent shortness of breath and fatigue were symptoms of congestive heart failure, a deadly condition that could eventually claim her life.

Wright, who said she had always been healthy before, denied the diagnosis initially -- the things she knew about heart disease just didn't square with the things she believed about herself.

She's not unique in that respect. Although heart disease is the leading killer of women in the United States, according to the American Heart Association, few women are appropriately educated about their risk of developing it.

The commonly depicted pop culture heart attack -- a numb arm, the victim clutching their chest -- is largely an experience reserved for men. Women experience heart attacks differently -- they're more likely to feel nauseated, short of breath and feel back or jaw pain -- and many deal with progressive heart conditions for years without realizing the true source of their symptoms.

Some female victims of heart disease and heart attacks mistake their condition for the flu, acid reflux or even normal aging.

By Aug. 11, 2017, Wright's condition had deteriorated to the point of requiring a transplant. When she learned from a nurse that she had been matched with a donor, she was overcome.

"She said, ‘Well, we have a beautiful heart for you,' and I just bounced out of the bed, hands up in the air, screaming hysterically," she said.

Wright said she never forgets about the heart's original owner and works hard to take care of the gift she's been given. She volunteers with the American Heart Association and takes doctor-recommended steps toward keeping her new heart in good shape, including exercising regularly and eating a healthier diet.

"It gets me every time," she said. "I am so grateful. So thankful."