By Stephen Spotswood
COLUMBIA, S.C.—Beverly Buchanan’s symptoms didn’t immediately set off any red flags in her mind. There was dizziness and a feeling that she might pass out, but those could be so many things. It wasn’t until she woke up with the feeling of having been kicked in the chest that she started thinking this might be something serious.
Both of Buchanan’s parents suffered from heart disease. Her father had three myocardial infarctions before dying at the age of 58. Her mother, who avoided going to the doctor for decades, was eventually diagnosed with three-vessel disease, which required a coronary bypass. Even Buchanan’s son, now a senior in high school, has a congenital heart defect that required surgery when he was less than six months old.
Still, Buchanan, a specialty nurse in the Medical Intensive Care/Coronary Care/Step Down Unit at the William Jennings Bryan Dorn VAMC in Columbia, SC, came close to ignoring the symptoms, including that kick in the chest.
But, because she didn’t want illness to interfere with summer plans, in spring 2012 she visited her cardiologist. She told him that she thought something was wrong with her heart. She was in good shape and only 54 years old, and at first the doctor didn’t believe her. But because he knew her personally, he scheduled a stress test and a myocardial perfusion. The test came back abnormal.
“I didn’t fit the profile. My cardiologist said, if I had been a male, the next step would have been a cardiac catheter, but he didn’t believe there was something seriously wrong,” Buchanan explained. “Instead, they gave me a Holter monitor.”
With the monitor, a wearer pushes a button every time she feels pain. Its effectiveness is questionable, and Buchanan’s didn’t capture anything. But there was that abnormal stress test, so her cardiologist eventually arranged a cardiac catheterization.
Her diagnosis: a “widowmaker.” Buchanan had a 99% blockage of the left main coronary artery, a condition called the “widowmaker” because the heart attacks it causes so frequently result in instant death in men.
What followed was immediate bypass surgery followed by three months of cardiac rehabilitation for Buchanan. And a new way of treating female patients for her cardiologist.
“After that, he was overly vigilant,” Buchanan said. “It modified the ways he looks at women. He talked to other partners [in his practice]. When somebody does come in, you need to take it seriously and push harder.”
Nearly five years later, Buchanan is hoping to use her experience to have a similar impact on women and physicians nationally. Buchanan is one of 11 women chosen by the American Heart Association for the 2017 Go Red For Women campaign and will serve as a spokesperson for the movement. The goal of the campaign is to raise awareness of the dangers women face when it comes to heart disease and stroke.
“More of us die from heart disease than breast cancer, but our fixation is with breast cancer because they got their message out,” Buchanan explained. “For males, the symptoms are clear-cut and distinct. For women, the symptoms are more benign, more nebulous. For women, it can be simply fatigue. We rarely get that overwhelming punched-in-the-chest sensation.”
Even the name for Buchanan’s life-threatening condition, “the widowmaker,” assumes the sufferer to be male.
“Women also have this tendency to think that it’s their job to take care of other people and put [their own health] on the back burner,” she explained. “I always ask women what doctors they have, and so many when they’re young are only seeing a gynecologist, and not necessarily an internist.”
Even Buchanan was guilty of eschewing help while she was first seeking a diagnosis. The Dorn VA has moved from Holter monitors to a CardioNet monitor that records data 24 hours a day. When her co-workers previously suggested that Buchanan—an Army veteran—take advantage of this advanced technology, she demurred. In her mind; she was the one providing the care, not the one seeking it.
Each of the 11 women chosen for the campaign has a specific part of the campaign that they’re in charge of amplifying. Buchanan’s is to “know your numbers.”
“Know what your blood pressure is. Know your cholesterol level. Know your BMI. See what your blood sugar is,” Buchanan declared. “All of these things have a profound effect on your heart. It can save your life.”