MUHC initiative fighting misconception of heart disease affecting mostly men

Cheryl Bertoia remembers the day five years ago vividly — she had just finished a long vacation in Southeast Asia, but she wasn’t feeling right. She was both exhausted and having trouble sleeping, and was in slight pain. She mentioned to her husband that she thought about seeing a doctor.

“He immediately went online, looked up what I was experiencing,” she recalled, “and said ‘you’re having a heart attack. We need to go to the emergency room right now.’”

It turned out her husband was right — she was having a heart attack. According to the Women’s Healthy Heart Initiative, a community funded organization based inside the McGill University Health Centre, one out of every three women die of either heart disease or stroke. 

“It is still today, in 2021, thought of as a man’s disease, and it’s not,” said the organization’s founder, Wendy Wray. February is heart health month in Canada.

Feb. 13 is a day Wray designated as “Wear Red Day” to point out that heart disease is a deadly problem for women.

It is also one that often has signs that differ from heart disease in men. 

Women “have associated symptoms such as nausea, shortness of breath, light headedness and fatigue,” she said. The good news, according to Wray, is that 80 per cent of heart disease cases are preventable with proper treatment. 

Bertoia is grateful for the help she received from the WHHI after her heart attack — without a history of heart disease in her family or a problem with obesity, she said initially she didn’t believe this was a problem she faced. 

“My first thought was: no, this can’t be happening to me,” she said. “There’s no reason for this to happen to me.”

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