Outside a Georgia Aquarium ballroom filling with women wearing red, Sherry Kinard told me about the day she almost died.
She was 27 years old, had just given birth to a son. He was two months premature but healthy. Kinard had no reason but to believe better days were ahead. She was looking forward to moving into a new home and starting a family. Then five days after giving birth, she woke up and couldn’t breathe.
Kinard headed to the emergency room at Crawford Long Hospital, where she was immediately admitted.
It looked like a scene straight out of the popular television medical drama “ER,” she said.
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She hadn’t been there long when a doctor walked in with an echocardiogram machine.
I know what’s wrong and we can fix it, he told her, but right now, you’re in heart failure.
It has been nearly 16 years since Kinard, now 43, heard those words, but every day since then, she has been working to increase awareness about the dangers of heart disease among women.
It is why she and the steady stream of women arriving at the aquarium came to support the 10th annual Women’s Heart Healthy Luncheon sponsored by Morehouse School of Medicine and the volunteer support organization Women With Heart; why she takes every opportunity to share her story.
And it is what drew me. Both my mother and oldest sister died from massive heart attacks. My mother was 43; my sister 59, so I know it could happen to me.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in America, killing nearly 50,000 African-American women a year. Fifty thousand.
Are women more prone to getting it?
It depends, said Elizabeth Ofili, a cardiologist and senior associate dean at Morehouse School of Medicine
“Heart attacks are generally more severe in women than in men,” Ofili said. “In the first year after a heart attack, women are more than 50 percent more likely to die than men are. In the first six years after a heart attack, women are almost twice as likely to have a second heart attack.”
And while more women died of heart disease each year than men, heart disease and related risk factors — high blood pressure, diabetes, family history and lack of physical activity — are often undiagnosed.
Kinard had no known risk factors. She was fit. She maintained a healthy diet. She had no family history of heart disease.
But five days after giving birth on April 6, 2003, she returned to the hospital unable to breathe.
Kinard had peripartum cardiomyopathy, or postpartum cardiomyopathy, a rare form of heart failure that happens during the last month of pregnancy or up to five months after giving birth. Her heart was functioning at about 19 percent. Normal heart function is more like 55 percent.
According to Ofili, about 1,000 to 1,300 women develop the condition each year in the U.S. The underlying cause is unclear, but obesity, being of African descent, and genetics can play a role.
Like Kinard, many women recover normal heart function or stabilize on medicines.
Doctors told Kinard she couldn’t have more children. Any future pregnancy could put her at high risk of developing the same condition.
“That was devastating,” she said.
But Kinard already had her miracle baby, Jalen. He’s 15 now and one of the healthiest kids she knows. She has to take medication for the rest of her life but is otherwise healthy.
Here’s the thing that still keeps Kinard awake at night.
Too often, doctors miss postpartum cardiomyopathy.
That may be, Ofili said, because symptoms can mimic those of third-trimester pregnancy, such as swelling in the feet and legs, and some shortness of breath.
That’s why it is important to get a checkup early if women have these symptoms, since tests like heart ultrasound will be needed to detect the reduced heart muscle function. While many cases improve with treatment, some may progress to severe heart failure requiring heart transplantation. Some women die.
As with any type of heart disease, Ofili said, there are preventive measures women can take to reduce risk factors. Those include not smoking, controlling blood pressure, treating diabetes, reducing cholesterol, having an active lifestyle; managing stress, and sleeping at least six hours each night.
For women, it is important to recognize that heart disease may not present with dramatic symptoms like severe chest pains. Symptoms like indigestion, shortness of breath or fatigue may signal a problem with your heart and should be checked out immediately.
This being the month we celebrate Valentine’s Day and host American Heart Month, it seems the perfect time to give our hearts — the ticker and the one who tickles our fancy — our full attention.
“Healthy relationships and a healthy love life is good for the heart,” Ofili said.