Spotlight on Women's Health
An Interview With a Woman Living With Heart Disease: Mary Eriksmoen
January 31, 2014
Heart disease is a serious health problem among women, yet many do not understand the signs and dangers of the disease. Here to tell us that identifying the symptoms of heart disease can save lives is Mary Eriksmoen. For three months, Mary experienced chest pain that radiated into her jaw without realizing it was a symptom of heart disease. In honor of American Heart Month, read Mary's story to learn why she finally decided to get medical attention.
Mary Eriksmoen was diagnosed with heart disease at the age of 53. She ignored her symptoms for three months because she thought she was too young to have heart issues. Just over a year ago, Mary had successful triple bypass heart surgery. Today, she lives in North Dakota with her family and is taking steps to improve her health. She wants to encourage other to women to understand the signs of heart disease and to seek medical attention immediately if they think something is wrong.
Q: Will you please describe the symptoms you experienced?
A: For me, it started a little over a year ago. When I would walk up stairs, I felt a pain in the middle upper part of my chest. It radiated into my jaw. I later learned this was called angina, and it meant my heart wasn't getting enough blood. I was also getting headaches. The jaw pain was the worst, though.
Q: How old were you when you first experienced these symptoms?
A: I was 53.
Q: What impacted your decision to wait to get medical attention?
A: My age. I felt I was too young. I thought that heart disease was for people in their 60s and 70s.
Also, I fell about six years ago and have had back issues ever since. I have one herniated disk and two bulged disks. I felt like this was something I was complaining about a lot and people were tired of hearing about my medical stuff. I felt like I couldn't talk about the chest and jaw pain I was experiencing. I didn't think people wanted to hear about it.
My dad was a doctor. As a kid, we'd be sitting around the table at dinner and he'd get a call from someone saying they'd been sick for three weeks asking him to come examine them in the emergency room. So I've always been timid about going to get checked out for little things. That's what I thought my jaw and chest pain were — a little thing.
Q: When did you realize that your symptoms might have something to do with your heart?
A: Basically, your Make the Call. Don't Miss a Beat. public service announcement on TV, which talked about what it might feel like for a woman who is having a heart attack. While I wasn't actually having a heart attack, the symptoms were similar and they kept getting worse.
I thought I had a temporomandibular joint and muscle disorder, or TMJ, like I was clamping my jaws too hard. I thought that's what was going on until I saw the public service announcement. After seeing the announcement several times, I began to think that my symptoms might have something to do with my heart. I thought I should get it checked out to make sure.
My sister also encouraged me to see a doctor. I visited her right after I'd made an appointment. I hadn't told anyone about my symptoms at that point, and it was nice to get confirmation that I'd done the right thing.
Q: Can you tell us how you felt after watching the Make the Call. Don't Miss a Beat. television public service announcement?
A: Because I was only 53, I still didn't think it was an issue with my heart, even though heart disease runs in my family. But I figured I should get it checked out just in case.
I also thought of my family. I have three grown kids with spouses and grandchildren. I thought, "I'm not ready to die. I have so much to look forward to with my kids and grandkids. I don't want to miss that."
Q: Once you made the decision to visit a health care professional, what kinds of appointments and tests did you have?
A: My first appointment was with a nurse practitioner at my regular doctor's office. When I explained my symptoms, she had me schedule a nuclear stress imaging test and an echocardiogram. I still didn't believe it was an issue with my heart.
When I went in for those tests the following week, I walked very slowly on the treadmill for the stress test. Within what felt like seconds, the pain became very intense. They had to stop the test and give me oxygen.
At that point, I thought there might be something not quite right, but they couldn't share the results with me. They had to send them to the doctor first.
Q: What were the results of your tests? Did you need surgery?
A: My doctor called me later that week with the results. He sent me to a cardiologist because my test results were abnormal.
I met with the cardiologist on Thursday, and he scheduled an angiogram, carotid ultrasound, and chest x-ray for the following day. When I came to after the angiogram, I found out I had three blockages affecting blood flow. I had a 99 percent blockage of my right coronary artery, an 85 percent blockage of the left anterior descending artery, and a 75 percent blockage in the left circumflex artery. This meant I needed triple bypass heart surgery.
It still didn't feel real to me. It just didn't seem possible. I didn't feel scared because it felt so unreal. The weird part is, Saturday night, my mom came to me in a dream and told me everything was going to be all right. I don't know if that gave me some peace or what. About 10 years earlier, my mom also had heart bypass surgery.
Q: Since your surgery, have you made any lifestyle changes to improve your health?
A: I've been watching what I eat. The biggest struggle I'm having since my surgery is quitting smoking. I know I need to. I didn't smoke for three to four weeks after the surgery, but I just started again and I shouldn't have.
I also went to cardiac rehab three times a week for 12 weeks. I used exercise equipment, like recumbent cross trainers, stationary bikes, and weights. While I exercised, my heart was being monitored. I also spoke with a dietitian.
My back limits my ability to get the exercise I need for a healthier heart, so one of the things I do now is go to the hydrotherapy pool at the hospital. I go about twice a week, and it helps with both my back and heart. For other women out there who can't exercise due to a disability of any kind, the hydrotherapy is a good alternative. From my understanding, the pool takes off a lot of the pressure on your joints and lets you do exercises that you can't do on land.
Q: What advice would you give to other women about recognizing symptoms of heart disease?
A: Just listen to your body. For a long time, I felt that, as a female, doctors would just say, “It's all in your head.” But one thing I've learned is my body was telling me something was wrong. I just needed to listen to it. If you think there is something wrong, you should get help right away.
I also encourage women to pay attention to health public service announcements on TV and the radio. Pay attention because it could make the difference between life and death.
I think women need to understand the signs of heart disease. You can have an issue with your heart even if you don't have the crushing chest pain we often associate with a heart attack. Also, I think it's important women understand that their heart attack symptoms are different than men's, and if they experience any of the symptoms, they should call 911. That came to me not only through the Make the Call. Don't Miss a Beat. public service announcement, but I [also] learned that at cardiac rehab.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to share?
A: Yesterday I went to the doctor. I have diabetes and am having trouble getting my blood sugar under control. I've managed it for about a year and a half, but for some reason I'm having issues now. Anyway, my understanding is that your blood sugar also affects your heart. They told me if I don't get my diabetes under control, the bypass won't do me any good. I encourage those who have diabetes as well as heart disease to do something to get their blood sugar under control.
To learn more about the seven most common symptoms of a heart attack, visit our Make the Call. Don't Miss a Beat. website. If you experience any one of the seven common symptoms, don't make excuses for them. Make the call to 911 immediately.
If you or a loved one has diabetes, visit the National Diabetes Education program website to learn more about managing the disease and how diabetes affects your heart.
For help quitting smoking, visit Smokefree Women to find resources to help you quit for good.
The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.