Cardiac symptoms often different for women

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Kathy H. was feeling tired for a couple of weeks, but didn’t give it much thought. But when she felt a sharp, stabbing pain in her chest each time she took a deep breath, she went to the doctor.

Her primary care physician at Salem Clinic, Donald Orwick, MD, diagnosed her with viral pleurisy. But that was just the start of her journey back to health — which took another twist later!

Pleura are thin layers of tissue covering the lungs and chest wall. Normally, the pleura slide easily over each other when you breathe. However, when the layers become inflamed, they rub together causing chest pain.

The pain was centrally located and worsened when Kathy would lie down. The pain was bad enough that she spent several nights sitting up to sleep. She was taking anti-inflammatories and held a heating pad on her chest to ease the pain and “ride out” the virus.

“Over about two months, I experienced some relief of the symptoms,” recalled Kathy. “But then the symptoms would return, sometimes with chills and a fever for several days at a time. Because of the reoccurring symptoms, Dr. Orwick ordered a stress test and wanted me to see an infectious disease doctor to do additional testing.”

The stress test revealed possible problems in Kathy’s heart at which point she was referred to Barath Kirshnamurthy, MD, a Salem Health cardiologist.

Kathy felt immediately comfortable with Dr. Kirshnamurthy. “He was very nice and oozed intelligence, but was never condescending,” Kathy said. “He took the time to explain what he thought was going on with me, and thoroughly answered every question I asked.”

Dr. Kirshnamurthy recommended an angiogram to see if any of the blood vessels in Kathy’s heart were blocked. During the angiogram, he discovered blockage and put in a stent to open the blood vessel.

Following the stent procedure, Dr. Kirshnamurthy prescribed cardiac rehabilitation at Salem Health. “My initial thought was, I don’t want or need to go to cardiac rehabilitation,” remembered Kathy. “I think I was still in denial about my heart condition.”

When Kathy first walked through the facility, there weren’t any other recovering women. “I ignored that and did what was best for my health. I went to cardiac rehabilitation three times a week for eight weeks. It turned out to be a very good thing for me.” 

Kathy has vertigo so the rehabilitation team worked to find equipment that would allow her to exercise without making her dizzy. With help from the rehabilitation team, she set and achieved her exercise goals.

At cardiac rehabilitation, the therapists also shared heart healthy recipes and offered education sessions. “I can’t say enough good things about it,” said Kathy. “It is an excellent program. It inspired me to continue exercising. Once I finished my rehabilitation sessions, I joined a gym to continue my recovery and live a healthy lifestyle.”

“When my condition first started, it didn’t seem heart related,” Kathy said. “I don’t know if I ever had typical signs of a heart condition, but Dr. Orwick’s persistence in uncovering the underlying cause may have saved my life. If it weren’t for Dr. Orwick, I would have waited it out.”

Kathy’s height and weight are healthy; plus she’s relatively young to have a heart condition. She had no idea she had blockage, and she did not have the “typical” symptoms that men experience with heart disease. Kathy wants women to know that cardiac symptoms for women can be different from men’s.

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