The Second Half: How healthy is your heart?

By Kathleen D. Tresemer

There was an interesting Barbara Walters special on television recently, one where she and a few other Second-Half celebrities discussed their diagnoses of heart disease and subsequent surgeries. As a woman in my Second Half, I made a point to watch—contrary to popular belief, I have a heart, too.

Barbara told her own story: how her doctor discovered her faulty heart valve, her open-heart surgery to replace it with a cow valve, and her fears about dying. She interviewed President Bill Clinton, Robin Williams, David Letterman, Regis Philbin and Charlie Rose, all who have had their chests cracked open, their hearts repaired and have since made a full recovery. Walters tells us:

“…many of us are ticking time bombs, and we don’t even know it. Heart disease is America’s No. 1 killer. Half of us will die from it. And it doesn’t discriminate. Every year, the hearts of more than 500,000 women stop beating, twice as many deaths as all cancers combined.”

(Read the transcript of the show at

One in two women dies from heart disease—ONE IN TWO! So, if you’re a woman, or you love a woman, keep reading; and there’s stuff for men here, too.

The symptoms of a heart attack are often very different for women and can be overlooked or blamed on anxiety or exhaustion, even by health professionals.

The Department of Health and Human Services/Office on Women’s Health wants women to learn how to recognize signs of a heart attack, especially those they might dismiss. Check out their website at

Seven major signs you’re having a heart attack:

1. Unusual or unexplained fatigue unrelated to exercise—Not the kind you’re already used to: shopping, paying bills, doing housework, a job with long hours, spouse, kids, grandkids and the list goes on. This particular fatigue is huge, like you can’t walk to the mailbox or climb stairs without resting. Sadly, many women just write it off to “being busier than usual,” or maybe “I must be coming down with something,” as they run off to pick up groceries or scrub the toilet.

2. Unfamiliar dizziness or lightheadedness—Not to be confused with our usual state of discombobulation, this happens because your heart is not pumping enough blood to your brain. Many women might assume they were dizzy because they were too busy to eat—again.

3. Unexplained nausea, vomiting—This one is sneaky. The actual symptom is lower chest or upper abdominal pressure, but it sort of translates to nausea and vomiting. Women are more likely to focus on puking because we’ve been dealing with puke all our lives. There were nine kids in my family growing up—if someone wasn’t puking, the sun didn’t come up that day.

4. Sharp pain in the upper body, including the neck, back and jaw—No, you haven’t strained something… call 911, because this symptom is a biggie!

5. Severe shortness of breath—OK, breathing is important. Don’t try to explain it away as a result of shoveling 2 feet of snow or hauling wood in 20-below zero weather. (Wait, I just did that!)

6. Heavy pressure on the chest—This pressure is relentless. It may feel like indigestion, heartburn, fullness or squeezing, it lasts more than a few minutes, and may come and go. It doesn’t change when you get into a more comfortable position. It is not because you didn’t get flowers on Valentine’s Day—your heart is demanding medical attention, not a cup of tea or a hug.

7. Cold sweats—These episodes do not resemble hormonal hot flashes, ladies. You’ll know the difference: one’s hot, the other’s cold.

I gotta admit, Barbara got to me. Yes, I had an EKG at my physical a year or two ago, but there’s this nagging voice in the back of my head saying, “Shouldn’t you get a real heart checkup?”

This being Heart Month, I decided to get on the stick. I called my friends at SwedishAmerican Center for Women and scheduled myself for their Wellness Package. The Wellness Program is designed as a one-stop visit for women who are busy—is there any other kind? You get all your basic essentials in one convenient appointment, and you get a free massage, 30 minutes of pampering just for taking care of yourself!

There are three different Wellness Packages, depending upon your needs. The Wellness Package I picked includes a heart scan, because Barbara said I should. In addition to the heart scan, I will receive:

• Mammogram

• Complete physical

• Pap test

• DEXA Scan (aka Bone Density Test)

• Free massage

• Free personalized health assessments, based on results of my testing

In addition, they bill to insurance or—for the uninsured—they work with the Health Department. For questions about the Wellness Program, or to schedule an appointment, contact the Center for Women at (815) 391-7676.

Another choice offered by the SwedishAmerican Center for Women is the Healthy Heart Screenings for Women, which includes cholesterol screening, BMI (body mass index), cardiac risk screening, blood pressure and glucose checks. Fee is only $25—call (815) 490-5863 to make an appointment.

What about the men? SwedishAmerican Heart Hospital offers a non-invasive heart scan that is fast, painless and identifies problems before symptoms are present. Receive results within a week, and a heart professional calls you to discuss them. For more information or to schedule a Heart Scan, call (815) 391-7099.

OK, I’ve scheduled my appointment—I suggest that my Second-Half readers celebrate Heart Month by doing the same!

To learn more about heart health, visit the following websites:

• WebMD Heart Health Center at

• American Heart Association at

In her second half of life, Kathleen D. Tresemer is both a journalist and an award-winning fiction writer. She lives with her husband on a small ranch in rural Shirland, Ill. Kathleen can be contacted by e-mail at

From the Feb. 23-March 1, 2011

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