Strong at Heart

Three Lake Minnetonka women whose lives have been touched by heart disease join a community campaign to raise awareness.

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in America. That’s something the American Heart Association wants every woman to know. This year, three Lake Minnetonka-area women who have been affected by heart disease are helping spread the word.

Every year, the American Heart Association (AHA) sponsors the Go Red for Women campaign in an effort to raise awareness and fund new research. Women whose lives have been touched by heart disease are asked to become ambassadors and to tell their stories, in the hope that another woman’s life might be saved by the knowledge. This year, three of the five Minnesota ambassadors live in the Lake Minnetonka area. They each have a story to tell, and their range underscores the different ways in which heart disease can touch any one of us.

Mary Wangerin wants women to know that speaking up and insisting that your doctor listen to what you are saying can save your life. Wangerin, who lives in Savage, was misdiagnosed over the course of several months, as her symptoms didn’t line up with what the doctors who treated her expected to see in someone having a heart attack. After repeated attempts to get relief from the pain she was feeling in her back, shoulder and chest, she was treated for a pinched nerve in her neck—but the pain kept intensifying. At first, she was hesitant to get a cortisone injection, one common treatment for neck pain. “Then the day came where I was in so much pain that I was calling my doctor, crying and begging for the cortisone,” Wangerin says. “My daughter drove me to the appointment, and following the procedure, which was intended to ease the pain, it instead intensified.”

That was when Wangerin knew that she had to make her health care providers listen to what she was saying. Finally, she was taken to the cath lab for a cardiac stent. “It was at this time that the cardiologist performing the procedure said, ‘My dear, you have been having a heart attack.’ I laughed when he said that, because I was so relieved to have a diagnosis.” She was given nitroglycerin for the pain, which brought it down from “a nine to a zero.” Since nitroglycerin is used as a targeted medicine to treat cardiac pain, the improvement was another strong indication that the pain wasn’t being caused by a pinched nerve.

Wangerin’s mission as an AHA ambassador is to help other women feel empowered to make sure that their doctors are hearing them. That is also one of the AHA’s specific goals for the Go Red for Women campaign: to remind women to be advocates for their health. The AHA encourages women to go in for their annual physicals and to speak up if something doesn’t feel right. Wangerin’s advice is to “be pushy with your doctors. Keep moving forward and don’t stop listening to your body.”

Go Red for Women

The regional chapter of the American Heart Association hosts ambassadors at a luncheon each year. This year’s Twin Cities Go Red luncheon, on January 13, is expected to raise over $1 million. Melanie McIvor will speak about her heart story to more than 750 guests at the Minneapolis Convention Center. The ambassadors will also be featured on billboards throughout the state and each one of them will tell her story dozens of times.

And it’s making a difference: Since the Go Red for Women campaign began 14 years ago, the number of women dying from heart disease each year has decreased by 34 percent.

June Van Valkenburg’s story is about both heart failure and heartbreak. She experienced the tragic loss of a child to sudden heart failure. Van Valkenburg’s daughter, Jerika, was 26—she was healthy and had no known risk factors for heart disease, when she died one night in her sleep in 2015. Losing a child is any parent’s worst nightmare, but it was compounded by the fact that no one could tell Van Valkenburg why or how Jerika’s sudden heart failure had happened.

Van Valkenburg, a Minnetonka resident, is interested in exploring ways to effectively screen young people for “hidden” heart problems. One possibility might be to give electrocardiograms (EKGs) to high school students as part of the physical exams required when they sign up for sports. Van Valkenburg is a nurse practitioner herself, so she understands that tests must be cost-effective to be practical, but she hopes that research done by the AHA and other advocacy groups can help find a way to screen efficiently for catastrophic heart problems.

Van Valkenburg also feels that automated external defibrillators (AEDs) should be readily available in as many public spaces as possible. If someone has a cardiac event, a bystander can use an AED machine to determine whether an electrical shock is needed; the machine then provides the right shock to try to re-establish a normal heart rhythm.

She also wants as many people as possible to be trained in CPR. Van Valkenburg has even used her own knowledge to save a life: In January, she was at a coffee shop in Wayzata when a fellow customer lost consciousness and stopped breathing. “It was just a normal kind of day,” Van Valkenburg says. “I had just spoken to a friend I happened to run into, and then suddenly this was happening.” Van Valkenburg started CPR and her friend came to help. They kept the man’s heart pumping until the paramedics arrived with an AED. They watched as the color returned to his face and he regained consciousness. Even for a nurse practitioner, it was a dramatic event, and it underscored for her how important education and awareness are in fighting heart disease. Van Valkenburg says that it was gratifying to be able to help. “I kind of feel like my daughter was there with me that day.”

Melanie McIvor, who lives in Excelsior, had just given birth to her second child when she began to think something was wrong. Right after delivering her child, she felt great—but about four weeks postpartum she thought she was coming down with a cold. McIvor felt a tightness in her chest when she tried to take a deep breath. It would have been easy to chalk it up to the usual tiredness and soreness all mothers of newborns experience, but McIvor felt different than she had after her first baby. Two weeks later, the tightness in her chest had become so bad that it was uncomfortable to lie down to sleep. After a couple of nights without sleep, she called her doctor’s office. She described her symptoms to a nurse, who told her to go the emergency room. She did.

Fortunately, McIvor quickly had the correct diagnosis: a heart condition. A team of doctors arrived at her bedside, and told her that she had a rare heart condition caused by pregnancy called peripartum cardiomyopathy (or postpartum heart failure.) McIvor explains, “My left ventricle was enlarged. My heart was having trouble pumping enough oxygen-rich blood to my body. My lungs had become congested with fluid—about 20 pounds of fluid, which was why I couldn’t lie down at night.”

Recovery was a slow process, but three years later McIvor’s heart is functioning at almost full capacity, and she is likely to live a full, healthy life. But if she hadn’t gone to the emergency room that day and the condition had continued to damage her heart, she might not be so lucky. One of her motivations for being an AHA ambassador is to encourage awareness about this rare but treatable condition for other new moms. “It would make complete sense for a [health care provider] to have a pamphlet on hand about symptoms to be aware of with pregnancy-related heart failure,” says McIvor, “just like when you get information on pre-eclampsia and pregnancy-related diabetes. One little pamphlet would have at least let me know that losing heart function could be a side effect of pregnancy.”

Could it happen to you?

Symptoms of a heart attack for women can be subtle and can vary widely. It’s also important to note that women’s symptoms can be very different from men’s symptoms, which many of us recognize as “classic” symptoms. For example, a woman having a heart attack might be nauseated. She might feel an overwhelming sense of tiredness, but she might not feel the classic sensation reported by men of tightness in the chest. Warning signs might be hard to detect, and there might be no warning signs at all. To learn more about what to watch for, visit the website here.