Christine Rekash, heart valve disease advocate for Go Red for Women
Women don't always put their own needs first, but it’s important to make time for yourself and the people who depend on you. Make a personal commitment to get regular head-to-heart-to-toes checkups and follow through with health care providers’ recommendations and additional testing if needed. I made a commitment to myself to keep a watchful eye on a leaky heart valve for several years before I eventually needed open-heart surgery to repair it.
I’ve learned from the American Heart Association and Go Red for Women that a heart valve should ideally open to allow one-way blood flow and seal tight when closed. Heart valve disease is a condition where the heart valves don’t work as they should. Sometimes congenital heart defects, calcification due to aging, side effects of cancer treatment, or secondary heart disease can cause a valve to leak or not open properly. This can put strain on the heart and not allow for proper circulation of blood.
At a routine physical, my primary care physician detected a heart murmur. After seeing a specialist, I was told I had mitral valve prolapse with regurgitation. Mitral valve disease is complex and requires careful analysis to properly identify and diagnose.
Awareness for heart valve disease is important because I remember how I felt when I was first diagnosed. I felt scared and alone and didn’t understand how serious this condition can be if left untreated. I was told that having a heart murmur and mitral valve prolapse was a rather common occurrence, but I didn’t know what it would mean for my future. The American Heart Association reports close to 15,000 people can be affected by this condition. Women are diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse more often than men and at a younger age, but in the long run we’re less likely to have complications.
One thing was certain, however; timing would be critical. Heart valve disease can usually be successfully treated with valve repair or replacement in patients of all ages. Having my own valve repaired would be a much better option than replacing it in my case. My personal commitment to follow-up appointments was vital to survival and a good outcome.
If you live with heart valve disease or love someone who does, I recommend joining Go Red for Women’s Facebook community #GoRedGetFit to join a sisterhood of heart disease and stroke survivors to provide support and encouragement. The American Heart Association also has a survivor network, the Patient Support Network, which is a great resource too.
Heart valve disease can be serious and warning signs should not be ignored. Common symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, lightheadedness and palpitations are often confused with everyday stresses of life or aging. Instead of ignoring or shrugging off symptoms, be your own advocate. Take matters of the heart into your own hands and seek professional medical advice if something doesn’t feel right.
Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of women. It claims more women’s lives than all forms of cancer combined, yet even modest changes to diet and lifestyle can lower risk by as much as 80%. Giving a voice to heart valve disease for women is essential to improve awareness of this condition. As an advocate of the Go Red for Women movement, I have a relentless passion for raising awareness, providing encouragement and supporting others through the Association’s #GoRedGetFit community and the Patient Support Network. My mission is fighting heart disease one beat at a time.