BARBARA HAMLIN, 85, urges women to take swift action at the first sign of a heart attack. Hamlin spoke at the Go Red! dinner on Feb. 2 at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick.

BARBARA HAMLIN, 85, urges women to take swift action at the first sign of a heart attack. Hamlin spoke at the Go Red! dinner on Feb. 2 at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick.

BRUNSWICK — “I think I thought I was pretty untouchable,” said Barbara Hamlin, a guest speaker at a recent Go Red! dinner hosted by Mid Coast Hospital to promote women’s heart health.

The hospital hosts a Go Red! dinner every other year. To each biennial dinner, the hospital’s Go Red! Committee invites a new audience to come not only about the dangers of heart disease — the No. 1 killer of women — but also how to prevent this silent menace.

At this year’s dinner on Feb. 2, organizers welcomed local child-care providers, as well as champions of the 5-2-1-0 initiative, which encourages children to eat five or more fruits and vegetables, spend two hours or less of recreational screen time, spend one hour or more engaging in physical activity and imbibe zero sugary drinks.

Hamlin, 85, stood at the podium in front of a room full of women ( and one male who attended) and declared that on Nov. 19, 2011, “I had a heart attack.”

“I didn’t quite know what a heart attack was,” she said. “ Both my parents died of heart-related problems, but I’d been under the care of a cardiologist for years.”

She’s suffered from atrial fibrillation for a number of years, “but it’s something you can live with very easily, so it came as a great shock to me that I had a heart attack.”

Access Health representative Linda Christie, during her presentation titled “In a Heart Beat,” explained that a heart attack occurs when there is a build-up of plaque — which is fat in the arteries, “and it narrows the path of blood flow to the heart,” decreasing the blood flow. Sometimes the plaque breaks off, causing a blood clot that can completely block the artery.

“When a blockage occurs, heart muscle dies,” Christie said. And women now have a higher incidence of heart attack than men.

“It’s important to know that for women, the signs and symptoms are different, and women are more likely to experience a discomfort rather than a pain,” Christie said. “Sometimes it almost feels like indigestion or upper abdominal discomfort or pain. … Women are also more likely to experience back or jaw pain than men.”

Christie emphasized, “If you have any of these symptoms where something just isn’t right — for more than five minutes — you should call 911. And it is very, very crucial that you do that,” she said, because a heart attack can damage the heart. It is also important to ride to the hospital in an ambulance where patients can be monitored and receive treatment right away.

Diagnosis and recovery

Hamlin acknowledged that the Sunday night before her heart attack, she experienced her first symptoms — which for her included what she described as her legs flailing in a fashion she couldn’t control. Still, she didn’t want to call 911 or push her Lifeline alarm button, telling herself it was probably nothing serious.

The following Thursday morning, she experienced more symptoms. Hamlin lives at Thornton Oaks, found the nurse who works at the independent living community during the day and told her that she had a funny feeling in her legs and pain in her arms.

She was taken to Mid Coast Hospital that morning, then transported to Maine Medical Center in Portland to undergo a cardiac catheterization, Hamlin said.

On the trip down in the ambulance, she started to have a heart attack, Hamlin said. “So I was lucky to have such good care.” It took a long time for her heart attack to come on, she said, advising other women, “Don’t let it go” when those symptoms start.

After spending time in Maine Medical Center and then at Bodwell Rehabilitation Center, Hamlin was able to return home.

“And now, cardiac rehab is taking over my life,” she said, to a chorus of laughter.

On a more serious note, Hamlin told the audience that her doctor told her the rehabilitation will “give me back my confidence, take away my apprehensive feelings, because it’s scary to have a heart attack … I think I thought I was pretty untouchable. I thought I was doing all I needed to do, but obviously I was under-exercized. And I’m getting it all back now.”

Taking control

Heart disease has a number of risk factors, some genetic but many controllable, such as weight and exercise.

Amy Berube, the community health liaison for CHANS Home Health Care, shared her own heart wisdom, explaining that shortly after her 30th birthday, she went for her annual exam: “At that time I learned I inherited a little more than what we call the Berube chin… I also inherited hypertension.”

She cut back on salt and increased her exercise. She also started taking blood pressure medicine, which was effective, so “I got a little lax,” but the hypertension was still under control.

About two years ago, her father, who was approaching his 60th birthday and who had been treated all his life for hypertension, needed to start treatment for glaucoma, an eye disease. With her 40th birthday was approaching, Berube didn’t want this to happen to her. But as a parent with a busy schedule and limited resources, she questioned how she would engage in new lifestyle changes.

Given the stakes, she found a way to make it work. The American Heart Association, she said, “recommends that you have 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week.”

“I have some really great news. I’ve been able to go off my hypertension medication, and I no longer have a blood pressure that’s concerning,” Berube said.

Given the genetic factor, she doesn’t expect this will always be the case, but she emphasized, “I was able to control this, and I just hope that I can inspire you all to get out there and do more to take care of yourself. Do this for yourself.”

The heart truth

Donna Guenther, an adult nurse practitioner at Mid Coast Hospital, followed Hamlin’s talk, sharing both the hard facts about heart disease and tips to prevent heart disease.

“Heart disease is still the No. 1 cause of death for women in this country,” Guenther said. Stroke, which still falls under vascular health, is No. 3. “ Statistically, 1 in 3 women in this country dies of heart disease. Over 8 billion women are living right now with heart disease. It’s ageless. It starts as early as our teenage years.”

Guenther continued, “One in 14 women age 45 to 64 has heart disease and clearly as we get older, our risk increases. Once you have established heart disease, it can be managed but it can’t be cured. This year, statistically, about 1.2 million Americans are going to have their first or second heart attack and about half a billion people are going to die.”

And more frightening, “ Two- thirds of women who have a heart attack never fully recover,” she said. “ We are very fortunate to meet a survivor.”

Women have smaller hearts then men, and smaller blood vessels, “ which tends to be why we don’t do as well when we have damage” to them.

“There is good news,” Guenther declared. “We can lower our risk for heart disease by as much as 82 percent. That’s huge! … It’s really all about leading a healthy lifestyle, it really is.”

Risk factors include family history, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, smoking, pre- diabetes, stress, lack of exercise and excess weight.

“We are the most overeating country on the planet,” Guenther said. “We need to start paying attention to what we’re putting in our mouths.”

This means reading the labels at the store and noting the salt and fat content and number of calories and serving size.

“Moderation is, of course, the key to everything,” she said.

When grocery shopping, one tip is to “ stay out of the aisles.” Travel the perimeter of the store to get fruits and vegetables and other healthy produce. “Bread’s not a bad thing, just don’t eat a whole loaf,” Guenther advised.

Watch your weight, Guenther said.

“That doesn’t mean buy bigger pants,” she said. “ That means get a scale. Get on the scale, and pay attention to that. … Everybody should have a pair of jeans that have no spandex in them, because we’ve even ruined jeans,” by making them stretch more.

“Once a week in the cotton jeans will help you with your weight,” Guenther said.

Over 65 percent of the U.S. population is overweight, and up to 37 percent is obese.

Guenther advised the audience to make exercise a priority — to fit physical activity into every day.

“ It’s got to be next to breathing,” she said. “You’ve got to sweat, like-you-need-ashower sweat.”

Guenther said symptoms of heart disease can go undetected, which is why heart disease is called the silent killer.

She advised the audience to schedule regular checkups and have the “full head-to-toe exam with lab work.”

Change does not happen quickly, and Guenther urged the women in the room to use the resources within the community as needed and, “Be good to yourself. Be realistic.”

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