Q&A: Heart Disease and Women

Yaskary Reyes

Did you know heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States — over stroke, diabetes, and even cancer? In honor of American Heart Month, we spoke with Yaskary Reyes. Yaskary is an ambassador for The Heart Truth®, a program sponsored by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute that strives to educate women about heart disease and motivate them to take steps to prevent it. She is also a woman living with heart disease.

Due to an unusually strong family history of heart disease, Yaskary's experience is not typical for most women. However, her story makes a compelling case for being aware of your own personal risk factors for heart disease. Read our interview with Yaskary to learn more about heart disease and how she manages it.

Q: Can you tell me about The Heart Truth® campaign and why you got involved?

A: The Heart Truth® is a wonderful, beautiful, and impactful program that appeals to women of all ages and backgrounds. The program uses the Red Dress?, the national symbol for women and heart disease awareness, to portray, motivate, and bring attention and awareness to heart disease. I got involved with The Heart Truth® because of my connection with WomenHeart: the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease. I am a WomenHeart Support Network Coordinator and a Heart Champion. WomenHeart advocates for women with heart disease or those at risk. I feel very passionately about awareness and how it can lead us to take important steps to advocate for our own heart health.

Q: What do you think women should know about heart disease?

A: Heart disease has no respect for age, gender, background, or physical appearance. It can be a silent killer, and women need to be proactive about being aware of symptoms, risks, and hereditary factors.

Q: What advice would you give to other women about their heart health?

A: Be an advocate for your own heart health! Learn to identify the signals that our bodies give and know the risks associated with the disease.

Because we tend to multi-task by being mothers and wives, often while working outside our homes, there are times that doctors would tell us that we are just stressed, but we need to persist in having further tests when we know that it is not merely stress. A couple of weeks ago on a Saturday morning, my younger sister, 51, went to her doctor's office crying. She had all of the symptoms of a heart attack. Her doctor questioned her as to why she was crying and told her that she was stressed and sent her home with pain killers. The following day, while having lunch at a restaurant, she almost had a cardiac arrest. I had already spoken with my sister about calling 9-1-1 if she felt symptoms again; this saved her life! The ER doctor told her that if she had gone home from the restaurant instead of to the ER, she would not have survived.

Q: Women may know high blood pressure and cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, and being overweight are risk factors for heart disease. What other risk factors do you think women should be aware of?

A: In my case, a strong family history/genetic factor on both sides of my family.

My mom and dad both died of heart disease — it runs in both sides of my family. My mom was only 38 when she died of a heart attack. I was 15 years old. One of my aunts had a heart attack at 33 and underwent triple bypass surgery; she died at 41. Many other aunts and uncles have died in their mid-50s. Young cousins have had heart attacks in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. And you know about my sister's recent experience!

Q: Because it runs in your family, did you take any steps to try and prevent heart disease?

A: The first step that I took was to follow a cardiologist's wise advice to the family after my aunt's death in 1986. He stressed the importance for the newer generation to be aware of this deadly disease in the family, and suggested that family members begin to have regular checkups and tests done at an early age. I was tested in my early 20s, and the results showed that I had genetic risk factors for heart disease.

Also, because of my strong family history, I have always done some sort of regular exercise. In my early 20s, I jogged and went to the gym a lot. In my late 20s and early 30s, I took aerobics and walked 20 to 25 minutes to and from work every day.

Because I followed the doctor's advice to get regular tests, they discovered that I had multiple arterial blockages when I was 49. In January 2010 I underwent emergency quintuple bypass surgery. Doctors told me that I was a "living miracle" and were surprised that I had not had a heart attack.

Also, because of the genetic factor in my family, I took proactive measures to check my 6-year-old son's cholesterol. The screening results were incredibly high at 350 (especially high for a child that young). This is when I truly realized the importance of knowing our numbers and of being aware, no matter how young you are.

Q: Tell me about the events leading up to your diagnosis. What did you experience?

A: Awareness has been a key factor. Even though my cholesterol levels were high, I never experienced the typical angina symptoms associated with cardiovascular disease. I have always been diligent about having regular blood work and echo-stress tests done in order to help prevent heart disease.

In late 2009, I went to my primary care doctor and mentioned to her that it had been about a couple of years since I had my last echo-stress test and that I wanted to have one done. She asked whether I was experiencing chest pain and I told her no, but that I had been feeling a very mild pressure on my left shoulder over the last couple of months. Considering my family history, my doctor approved the tests. In January 2010 I had an echo-stress test and the results were positive for possible arterial blockages.

My doctor called me at work the following morning and told me to go home and rest, not to expose myself to traffic, stress, or the cold weather that we were having in Florida that particular January. She also told me that she personally had made an appointment for me to go see a cardiologist that afternoon and emphasized that it was very important for me to leave work, go to my appointment, and just stay home resting until I received my test results. This was so shocking. I told my doctor that she was talking to me as if I were going to die and that I was feeling fine. At that moment, it was very difficult to accept what she was telling me. It was a very busy time in the office, but I went home and then to my appointment with the cardiologist that afternoon. However, I did go back to work while I waited for my test results, because I wasn't feeling sick or experiencing typical chest pains or angina symptoms — at least that's what I thought. I know better now.

Q: Once you were diagnosed, what kind of treatment did you receive?

A: Once I was diagnosed for possible cardiovascular disease, based on the results of the echo-stress test, the cardiologist scheduled a cardiac catheterization a few days after. On the day of the catheterization the doctor told me that he was surprised that I was still alive and able to walk and breathe due to the high level of blockages in my major arteries. He called my husband into the room and told us that I needed to have emergency bypass surgery, possibly triple bypass or more. He said the number of bypasses I needed would be determined at the time of my surgery, which was scheduled for the following day. This is when my cardiologist and surgeon, along with a team of cardiologists told me that I was "a living miracle."

Q: Since your surgery, what changes have you made to lead a more heart-healthy lifestyle?

A: I've always found it challenging to keep healthy eating habits. There are many foods I don't eat any more, and I am much more careful when making meal choices. I eat salads for lunch about three times a week, and I have cut down on portion sizes.

To learn more about how to lower your risk for heart disease, visit The Heart Truth® at www.hearttruth.gov.

To learn the seven most common symptoms of a heart attack, visit our Make the Call. Don't Miss a Beat. website.

The Heart Truth® is a registered trademark and Red Dress? is a service mark of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The statements and opinions in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health.