You have perhaps noticed that our calendars are getting crowded with disease-awareness months. October was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, November was Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, December was for flu-shot awareness and January was for codependency awareness and here we are now in February, which is American Heart Month. (I am not making fun. These are effective strategies serving vital causes.) So, as someone who has had a heart attack, I would like to share my thoughts about how to give a helping hand to your heart.
My attack happened two years ago. Big surprise, even though my genetic history was awful. Well, you can’t do much about your genes, but you can do plenty about everything else. Today I am totally well and I am deeply grateful, because heart disease kills more women than anything else, and I spend a lot of time trying to think beyond diet and exercise, the sacred duo long established as the two main paths to heart health.
Diet and exercise are a crucial physical approach. I would like to sneak in here with a little mental approach, as well.
In my mind’s eye is a five-pointed star. In the center of this star is a healthy heart. The five points are approaches, or routes, to the center. Here they are:
- HAVING THE RIGHT DOCTOR
By doing some reading, readily available on the Internet, and asking questions of professionals, I have learned a lot about differences that may occur between men’s and women’s heart attacks. A case in point: the difference between the attack suffered by my late husband, called in med-speak the Hollywood Heart Attack (clutching chest, crushing pain, collapse), and my own (minimal pain, nausea, general feeling of unwellness).
I was astonished to learn that, until the release of new research in 2001, many doctors did not know of these frequent gender differences, and many still don’t. Further, some still have the kneejerk conviction that heart attacks are what happen to men.
So the first point of my star is to insure that the doctor who treats me is up on the latest research and willing to share it with me. Willing, that is, to treat me not like a lesser being, but like a partner in the long-range project of keeping me well.
How do I do this? I interview. I ask questions. Granted, as a journalist I am accustomed to asking questions. But you can do it. Ask: What symptoms are typical for women? How may they differ from men’s? What are the latest treatments? How will you help me take care of my heart? And if the doctor keeps looking at the clock, or seems annoyed by your questions, take a walk. Remember, you are the buyer here. You are shopping for a medical service. You have no need to feel intimidated.
- PAYING ATTENTION
Attention, that is, to my own body. I like to think of it as policing my body. Patrolling the neighborhood, being alert, like any good cop.
When I had my own heart attack, I didn’t know what was happening to me. It could have been indigestion, or a strained muscle, for all I knew. But if it happened again (knock wood), I would know. I would know because of a hospital nurse who did this:
Standing by my bed, she put one hand just below her nose, as though saluting, and the other just below her pelvis, and said: “In women, from here to here, anything could be a symptom”, thus taking in the belly, back, chest, throat, arms, shoulders, neck, and jaw. Some range. It scared me. But then she explained that she did not mean that we should freak out over garden-variety stiff necks or aching backs. She meant that if it is a totally unfamiliar pain, one that you have never experienced before, and if it lasts, that’s when you should call your doctor. Probably it’s nothing, but be a smart cop: Report it.
- GETTING INTO YOUR OWN HEAD
My late husband, who was himself a doctor, told me once about a patient who had almost died, and then, to everyone’s surprise, including his own, recovered. “Oh. Doc,” the man said, “I never dreamed the sky could be so blue!”
People who have come back from the very edge say such things. Hal called it The Rapture of Redemption. It’s lovely while it lasts, this exquisite awareness of the beauty and blessings of life, but The Rapture of Redemption does not have long legs. It lasts typically for about a month, and then you are back to the same old dailyness of existence.
After my recovery, I was determined to make it last. I worked at it. I drilled myself to spend five minutes each morning when I awoke, and each night when I went to bed, concentrating on how grateful I was to be alive; literally counting my blessings. I made this little twice-a-day exercise habitual, non-negotiable, like brushing your teeth.
It was as mechanistic as it sounds, but it worked. Habit is an extraordinarily powerful force. And it continues to work, and I am convinced that it helps my heart stay healthy, because it leads me into paths of happy thought, which lead to the dissolution of stress, and the dissolution of stress is splendid medicine for the human heart.
- KEEPING TIME
There is nothing like a heart attack to make you appreciate the passage of time. I used to waste it, throw it away by the hour — day-dreaming, procrastinating, fretting, regretting, pouring energy and peace of mind down the drain.
With the threat to my health, there came a new awareness: My only reality is right now. I have rich memories of yesterday and high hopes for tomorrow, but all I can use, really, is this moment. I should respect it – use it well, milk it, make it count.
Pushing myself into this awareness of time has made great changes in my life. Because I am focusing on the now, I am more efficient. I get more work done, and on time. My sensations are sharper. I enjoy food more. I certainly enjoy exercise more, with a heightened awareness of how my body feels in the moment. Best of all, when time is concentrated in this way, so is pleasure. Everything that has ever pleased now pleases me more. I think of pleasure as a kind of unguent, oiling the chambers of the heart. Anti-rust.
- STAYING IN TOUCH
In another era, many women, myself included, met in consciousness-raising groups. The purpose was just what it sounds like: to raise our awareness of ourselves, and of the lives we were leading, in a time of profound cultural change for women.
Not much of that kind of consciousness-raising goes on anymore. These days, when women meet, they are less likely to talk about personal matters than about work (as we do, in fact, in a women writers’ group to which I belong).
What I propose is something more: women’s consciousness-raising groups for health. Our health.
There are online support groups for women who have just about every disease you can imagine. What I would love to see is a return to our living rooms, where healthy women might come together to talk about staying healthy. There would be plenty to talk about, because the medical community has only recently begun to learn about gender differences in health and disease – not just in our hearts, but in the whole of us — and a great remains unknown.
We might make discoveries – we do have, after all, terrific research tools: our own experiences of our own bodies. We could become our own ombudsmen. And we could regain that splendid old sense of coming together not out of need, or out of ambition, but out of the pleasure of learning more about ourselves and each other.
So Happy Heart Month, everyone. I volunteer my living room for the first meeting.