It's not just a concern for older people and men, warns Crystal Ching
Heart disease is common in women but symptoms can be subtle and unique. Despite her low cholesterol, healthy weight and good family history, Crystal Ching still developed dangerously narrowed arteries.
Crystal Ching has no family history of heart disease. She is under 50. Her cholesterol is low. She maintains a healthy weight. Yet she has heart disease.
“Suddenly one day I was overwhelmed by fatigue, upper body pain and nausea,” says the owner of a Sacramento pet products company. “When my husband said I could be having a heart attack, I told him it was impossible because I was too young.”
But heart disease symptoms in women can be subtle and unique, and often go under-recognized. And sure enough, a physician friend of Crystal’s was not satisfied with her initial diagnosis of heartburn at a Sacramento hospital.
He provided a prescription for a stress test, which can evaluate the heart’s response to varying levels of exertion. One of her customers passed along the phone number for cardiology at UC Davis Medical Center, home to the nation’s first program dedicated to treating and preventing cardiovascular conditions in women.
The stress test and an angiogram at UC Davis’ state-of-the-art cardiovascular diagnostic and treatment center revealed that Crystal hadn’t suffered a heart attack per se, but was at major risk of one. The 44-year-old was immediately admitted to the hospital for an emergency angioplasty and stent placement due to three narrowed blood vessels, including one that was a potentially life-threatening 90 percent narrowed.
Not just a disease of older people
Amparo Villablanca, a nationally recognized expert on heart disease in women, has been the cardiologist overseeing Crystal’s care ever since. Villablanca is part of a UC Davis cardiology and heart surgery team that is currently ranked among the nation’s best by U.S. News & World Report.
“It put my mind at ease to be connected with a team who could find the reasons for my symptoms, even though I had no obvious heart disease risk factors,” Crystal says. “I made the right choice to go to UC Davis for my medical care.”
“Crystal says she is the ‘new poster child for heart disease,’” says Villablanca, director of the UC Davis Women’s Cardiovascular Medicine Program. “She is proof that it is not just a disease of older people.
“And even though heart disease kills more women than men, most women do not think they are at risk and are not aware it is their leading killer.”
Coming to terms
Crystal Ching uses diet changes, regular exercise and medications to help avoid further cardiac problems, and also volunteers to help other women learn about their risks.
Today, Crystal’s primary diseased blood vessel has a stent, and she works hard to make sure she doesn’t have another cardiac event. She has cut out all meat except fish from her diet, exercises regularly and takes medications.
“Dr. Villablanca suggested that I go to the (UC Davis) Cardiac Rehabilitation program, which included supervised exercise sessions, heart-disease related lectures and meetings with dieticians to discuss healthy nutrition,” Crystal said. “It helped me come to terms with my heart disease and, after seeing improvements in my health, I had a better understanding of why my lifestyle changes were needed.”
Crystal also volunteers to help other women learn about their risks. She shared her heart-disease recovery story at a Women’s Heart Care Education and Awareness Forum, held each February in Sacramento during National Heart Month and hosted by the UC Davis Women’s Cardiovascular Medicine Program. The event brings together more than 300 community leaders to hear the latest information on heart-disease prevention.
Know your numbers
At the event and via other advocacy work, Villablanca encourages all women to "know their numbers," including their waist circumference and blood pressure, so they can actively track their heart disease risk factors.
She also asks them to learn the warning signs of a heart attack, some of which are unique for women, and to call 9-1-1 if they experience any of the symptoms.
“You can't judge a book by its cover,” Crystal noted. “Even though you might LOOK healthy, if you're not eating right, exercising or managing stress very well, you could still be a prime candidate for heart disease.”