In 1990, Gainesville resident Peggy Vardeman began having heart problems. Each time she has had a scare, she has noted back pain, nausea and sweating, not the stereotypical crushing chest pain portrayed in the movies.
“It’s always in my back. I’ve never had a chest pain,” she says. “I’m a perfect example of women experiencing different symptoms than men.”
Her first heart scare came in 1990 when she noticed a pain in her right shoulder and some nausea while walking up her driveway.
“I went to my doctor, and she said she thought I had pulled a muscle,” Peggy says.
However, a follow-up thallium stress test showed potential problems. Peggy had a diagnostic heart catheterization, which found two coronary artery blockages. The blockages were repaired by balloon angioplasty In balloon angioplasty, the doctor threads a tiny balloon through the patient’s artery along a very thin guide wire. The balloon is inflated and deflated a few times to open the artery. Peggy says she quit smoking right then and there.
“I was scared to death. I thought my life was over,” she recalls.
Over the years, Peggy has had more heart events, including quadruple bypass surgery in 1995 and angioplasties in 1998, 2001, 2002 and 2004. In 1998 following a heart attack, she had her first of three stent placements. A stent is a tiny coil that acts like scaffolding and holds the artery open after angioplasty. Stents often contain medicine to improve blood flow in the artery.
“I’m almost embarrassed to say I think something’s wrong, but I’ve only been wrong twice,” she says.
Her experiences are surprisingly common for women with cardiovascular disease, according to Dr. Jeffrey Marshall, interventional cardiologist with the Northeast Georgia Heart Group. Women are more likely to complain of nausea, general fatigue and shortness of breath.
While men typically have heart events earlier in life than women, women catch up after menopause, showing signs of heart trouble an average 10 years later than men.
Peggy, a retired kindergarten teacher, lives in Gainesville with her husband, Johnny. She is an active volunteer with the Northeast Georgia Mended Hearts, a local chapter of a national volunteer organization made up of heart patients and their family members. Through Mended Hearts, she visits open heart surgery patients and their families at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. She is also an avid reader and animal lover, and she recently traveled to Maine to attend her daughter’s wedding, despite the discovery of another coronary blockage in August 2007. This time, the blockage is being treated with medication.
“I have to take things a little slower. If I walk too fast, I get angina,” she says. “But I danced at our daughter’s wedding.”
One in three women over the age of 20 has some form of cardiovascular disease. It strikes women at younger ages than most people think, and the risk rises in middle age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the third most common cause of death among women ages 25 to 44 years old and two-thirds of women who have heart attacks never fully recover.