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GETTING RIGHT TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER

For years a friend would tell me, "Try tofu. Try miso," and I would look at her, appalled. Could she really believe that I would ever attempt to eat such weird stuff? Was she sane? Now I eat it regularly.
Likewise, I met suggestions about exercising the same way. I even responded with jokes about waiting in parking lots to get a space as close to the store entrance as possible. Me exercise?
And don't talk about even trying to eat fat-free foods. It was inconceivable. No, I did not eat some of the really fat-filled food of the Virgin Islands, such as souse or corn pork, but I surely handled many others well.
I, as a true Virgin Islander, do not believe in "talking my business in the street." Alcoholics Anonymous and other forums where you talk your "business" to a whole group is not for me — although intellectually I am a firm believer that these groups can really make a difference. And I do strongly recommend the lasting benefits of joining self-help groups. But, as a Virgin Islander, I just cannot believe that if you talk your business in a group, it will not travel any further than the room you are in.
Well, I am deviating from my personal belief system in the hopes that doing so may help others. And as a professional social worker, I am committed to making a difference for the better in any way that I can.
I have heart disease. I had six coronary bypasses almost a year and a half ago. Now, although it is not easy, I do exercise, and I dedicate myself to trying lots of reduced-fat or fat-free foods, adapting many fat-filled local recipes. Some have come out inedible, yet others have been delicious. I no longer smoke. In an effort to reduce stress, I try not to place unrealistic demands on myself or to let others do so. And I focus on doing what is necessary to prolong my life and maintain a good quality of life in the future.
This may sound easy to those of you gifted with strong personal motivations (or good genes) to maintain your bodies and refrain from addictions or inclinations that are damaging to your body. But to me, it is amazing that I am living this kind of lifestyle. I now realize — a bit late I may add — that, had I lived this way from a young age, I most likely would not have heart disease. And for those of you who don’t know, heart disease is permanent. A change in lifestyle slows its progress but does not halt it. I still have a ways to go, like getting slim, but I am convinced I am on my way and will get there.
As I walk on the Cyril E. King Airport perimeter sidewalk, or at other times on the St. Thomas waterfront apron, I see the large number of other people, particularly women, exercising, too. As is traditional here, most say "hello" or "good evening" as we pass each other by. (Remember when a public figure thought the Port Authority could increase revenues by charging for the use of its sidewalk? A novel approach, wouldn’t you say?)
Previously unknown to me, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. I would have thought it was cancer, particularly breast cancer, if I had given it any thought at all. However, in reading about heart disease, I find that one in 10 American women 45 to 64 years of age has some form of heart disease, and the rate increases to one in four women over 65.
New information that I have learned from The Women's Heart Institute is that African-American women have the greatest risk of heart disease of any gender or ethnic group, with heart disease their No. 1 cause of death after the age of 25. Obviously, that puts most of the Virgin Islands population at even greater risk. It also is said that about 40 percent of the time the traditional stress test is inaccurate as it pertains to women. Therefore, further testing, such as an echocardiogram, is necessary.
Women do not get the attention from the medical field and the media that men do as regards heart disease. Fortunately for me, my excellent primary care physician picked up on a comment I made and sent me on the path that led to the discovery of my heart disease before I had a heart attack. I remain eternally grateful to her and for her paying attention to every little detail (yeah for women!).
Washington Hospital Center, where I had my surgery, has had a Women's Heart Disease Education and Prevention Program since 1996. The program provides information on the specific symptoms found in women and says our symptoms are usually more subtle than those found in men with heart disease. These symptoms are:
– Angina — chest discomfort or fullness.
– Breathlessness — experienced during activities, or upon waking up at night.
– Chronic fatigue — inability to complete routine activities.
– Dizziness — a condition which can indicate irregular heartbeats, or arrhythmia.
– Edema — swelling, particularly of the lower legs and ankles.
– Fluttering heartbeats — rapid heartbeats that may cause pain or difficulty in breathing.
– Gastric upset — nausea unrelated to diet.
The web site of the Washington Hospital Center offers much interesting and useful information. For example, it notes there are risk factors in women that you cannot control (age, family history and race) and those you can (smoking, high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, obesity).
We as women need to listen to our bodies and learn to focus on ourselves. It is not selfish or self centered; it is necessary. Many of us spend a lifetime personally or professionally helping others and put "us" on the back burner. Stress is common among women as we balance our professional and personal selves.
I do not profess to be any type of health professional, and I hope nothing I have written is inaccurate. But I have done this to remind all of you women who read this, and any male reader who loves a woman, to take heed from it. Go to the web sites, think about yourself and try to change a little bit at a time. Heart disease and surgery is awfully scary (and expensive). If I can make progress in this area, believe me, anybody can.

Editor's note: Catherine L. Mills of St. Thomas, a former Human Services commissioner, holds a master's degree in social work.

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