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Heart disease can strike any time

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By The Staff

The elderly man hunched over from age, shuffling down the sidewalk. The older lady in the wheelchair with oxygen feeding through her nostrils.

Those are the faces of heart disease in America, aren't they?

Look at the face on this column mug. A healthy-looking 40-year-old woman. That's also the face of heart disease and a heart-attack survivor.

February is American Heart Month, a special time set aside to help raise the awareness of cardiovascular disease across the country. With more and more young women suffering and dying from heart disease each year, I hope my story will reach someone out there.

About a year and a half ago I was the lady with an oxygen tube running across my face, an IV coming from my arm with numerous bags of medication attached to it and a chest full of electrodes monitoring every beat of my struggling heart.

At 38 years old I had a heart attack.

It came as a big surprise in late July or early August of 2006. I'm not sure what day that it happened because like thousands of other people every year who suffer these attacks, I didn't immediately seek treatment.

Fortunately for me, I was blessed. I didn't die. Almost half of the people who have heart attacks every year in this country will die. Those who do not get immediate medical attention are in even greater danger of meeting death.

Coronary heart disease is the leading killer in this country.

For some reason, heart disease hasn't received the media attention of some other diseases, but it is stealing the lives of thousands every year.

It's a disease that can be combated and that people can live with, if they get help in time.

Like me, a lot of people do not heed the warning signs when our hearts and bodies are trying to tell us that something is terribly wrong.

I had faced many months of fatigue. Every morning I would get up and be instantly tired - the kind of fatigue that one usually experiences after a really long day of work.

Instead of going to the doctor immediately, I assumed that I was just working too many hours and having too much stress in my life. After all, this is a pretty intense society we live in and people juggle too much in life every day.

It never occurred to me that I had two major arteries clogged up with plaque, virtually robbing part of my heart of the blood flow it so desperately needed. When I had my heart attack I thought what I was feeling was a really bad case of indigestion.

After all, I had fought acid reflux and took prescription medications for that for years. And I was a 38-year-old woman.

I thought young women only rarely had heart attacks and certainly never thought I would be one of them.

My family tree does contain heart disease. My father died of prostate cancer at age 65 and had a chest full of heart blockages at the time of his death. He had only been diagnosed with heart problems about six months before his death.

My grandfather died of a heart attack at 50. My great-grandfather died of one at 40.

It looked like the genes were getting better and family members were getting older before the heart attacks would start to come. That was wrong.

It can happen at any time and the person doesn't even have to have a family history to be stricken.

The symptoms often are not those that we see at the movies with a man clutching his chest and falling to the floor.

According to the American Heart Association, most heart attacks start out slowly as pain and discomfort. The discomfort is typically in the center of the chest and lasts longer than a few minutes or goes away and comes back. The discomfort usually feels like pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.

These are the symptoms that I felt and believed were indigestion. The discomfort can also extend to other areas of the upper body and include discomfort or pain in the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach.

Other symptoms may include shortness of breath, cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

Anyone young or old feeling these symptoms shouldn't just put them off as something minor.

Call 911 and get to a hospital quickly.

It could be the difference between life and death.

Rice is a former publisher of The Perry County News and a heart-attack survivor. She lives in Bardstown, Ky.