Celebrate Go Red for Women: Wear Red, learn your risk for heart disease

Meet three women meeting the challenges of heart disease

Ask women when they’re at risk for heart disease, and they may say they have until after menopause gored.fwto start thinking about their cardiovascular health.

Not only is this wrong, it’s also dangerous because it prevents women from taking signs of heart disease seriously.

“The idea that heart disease is not a major risk for women is the biggest myth we need to counter,” says Claire Duvernoy, M.D., chief of cardiology at VA Ann Arbor Healthcare and an interventional cardiologist at the U-M Frankel Cardiovascular Center. “The truth is that more women die from cardiovascular disease than all forms of cancer combined.”

The good news is that women can lower their risk for heart disease, and campaigns like Go Red for Women, which celebrates National Wear Red Day, Feb. 7, inspires women to stand together for what is the fight for their lives. Every minute a women dies from heart disease, and 1 in 3 women’s deaths are caused by heart disease.  

Heart disease in women can be tricky to diagnose, because women’s symptoms are often atypical and less specific than men’s. Women are more likely to complain of shortness of breath and palpitations, and less likely to have the red-flag symptom of acute chest pain that radiates to the jaw and down the left arm.

Whatever the symptoms, it’s important for women to pay attention and take them seriously, especially if they have risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Everything associated with heart disease seems to be more dangerous for women than for men. Women are more likely to have recurrent chest pain and repeated hospital stays after a heart attack. Smoking, diabetes and high blood pressure are particularly deadly to women.

“The Frankel CVC is at the forefront of understanding how cardiovascular disease affects women, and how their care can be better coordinated from childbearing through their elderly years,” says Elizabeth Jackson, M.D., director of the U-M’s Women’s Heart Program, and author of “An Ageless Woman’s Guide to Heart Disease.”

Be inspired by stories of three amazing women treated for heart disease at the U-M Health System.

Graduating from college with a new heart

A college freshman taking a full load of classes, participating in Arts Chorale Choir and cheering on the Wolverines at every home football game is bound to get tired. But Andrea Bierema, 23, was always really tired, she says, slept a lot and got a headache and quickly lost her breath when she was active.

One night, while staying at a friend’s apartment, she had severe chest pain.

“I remember thinking that if I had to imagine what a heart attack would be like, it might feel like this,” she remembers. “But at 19 years old, I didn’t think it was very probable.”

Doctors would discover a virus was damaging her heart and quickly led to advanced heart failure. Andrea was connected to an external heart pump until she could receive a transplant. She waited nearly a month at the University of Michigan Health System before a donor heart finally came, and not a minute too soon. Before prepping her for transplant surgery, doctors gave Andrea time alone with her parents, Tim and Hermenia Bierema, both physicians. While they were talking, her father noticed she was having a stroke.

Following the transplant, Andrea missed her sophomore year, but got back on track with physical therapy to regain her strength. In May 2013, she earned a bachelor of arts in psychology from the U-M and is interested in working as a child life specialist.

“Andrea is an incredible example of how the power of the spirit can lead a person to greatness when the body cannot,” says Tracy Wright, senior health management consultant in the U-M Dean of Students office. “She has greatness of heart that goes beyond the physical presence of one that beats in each one of us.”

Genetic defect brings family together

Teri Aleo-Steil experienced an aortic dissection in 2008, at age 50, which led the family to learn that they carried a defect in the SMAD3 gene that can result in life-threatening aortic issues. It is a topic the family would come to know all too well.

Teri underwent complex aortic surgery that would also be performed on her brother and sister.

Following Teri’s life-threatening experience, the family learned that their grandfather’s aortic aneurysm in 1969 and their mother’s health issues were all tied to the gene mutation. The family also learned of distant relatives who had experienced health issues from the disorder, thanks to Facebook postings that helped get the word out.

All members of the family have undergone genetic testing (using a simple saliva test). Many have tested positive for the gene, and those with symptoms have been prescribed medication for high blood pressure, which is commonly associated with the condition. They also have regular surveillance imaging to monitor any existing aneurysm or to look for any suspicious developments.

“We’re blessed to be cared for at the U-M,” she says.

Born to inspire

Advances in heart care have helped Erika Laszlo, 44, meet many health challenges that started with bypass surgery at 2 and a half years old for Tetralogy of Fallot, a relatively common congenital heart defect. Another complex surgical repair for her heart happened a few years later.

At age 20, she was diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia and implanted with a heart device. The implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) has saved her life ten times by steadying an irregular heart rhythmn. Since then she has been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, atrial tachycardia, congestive heart failure, pulmonary hypertension and had a prosthetic pulmonary valve implanted.

“This may sound like a lot but I don’t let it slow me down,” she says. “I am a proud member of the Patient Family Centered Care Advisory Board at the U-M Frankel Cardiovascular Center. Patients and family members should understand that they are their best advocate. As a mother of two children and as a wife, I owe it to myself and my family to ask questions and I challenge my caregivers when something is unclear or does not seem right.

“When it’s time to make an important decision regarding health, patients and families need to gather information from all possible sources and make sure the choice that you and your family decide on is the best one for you.”

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The University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is the top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at umcvc.org.