The month of February not only has lots of special days, from Groundhog Day to Presidents Day, but also is a month of special recognition for many important organizations.
It is appropriate then, with Valentine’s Day right in the middle of the month and the heart its most visible symbol, that February also is American Heart Month.
Shirley Pagel of Lincoln wrote to the Bangor Daily News recently to remind us of this fact and to emphasize, as the American Heart Association reports, that heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases are the No. 1 killer of women in Maine.
Shirley serves as the Maine WomenHeart Champion coordinator for WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease.
To be that nationally trained spokeswoman, she said, you have to have heart disease.
It was three years ago, in January 2008, when Shirley, 78, felt a “weird, little pain” behind her shoulder.
Although she was exercising regularly and believed she was in good physical condition, that weird little pain caused her to check in with a doctor. Her visit led eventually to an X-ray and a stress test, which she failed.
Much to her surprise, Shirley learned the main artery to her heart was 85 percent blocked, and she ended up in surgery, having a stent inserted to correct the blockage.
“I came home on Valentine’s Day 2009 with a red scarf, and that scarf felt so wonderful I fell to knitting,” Shirley said.
The WomenHeart program presents female heart patients leaving the hospital with a bag that includes educational materials and a red scarf.
Shirley later learned that Alice Page of Bangor was the WomenHeart coordinator at the time, “and we got talking, and that’s how I got involved,” Shirley said.
“We call it ‘thriving’ with heart disease [rather than surviving with heart disease] because you don’t give up and it never goes away,” she said.
“This organization provides real support” for women living with heart disease, she added.
Shirley said that since women are often primary caregivers, “they don’t heal quickly because they are too busy taking care of other people,” and that women who have heart disease can often “become depressed and feel alone.”
“As we speak,” she told me, “42.7 million women are living with or are at risk of heart disease.”
According to the American Heart Association, there are controllable risk factors such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels, exercise, not smoking, diet and maintaining an appropriate weight.
The American Heart Association also points out the risk of heart disease is increased if a woman has conditions such as diabetes or depression, and that women with diabetes are 2.5 times more likely to have heart attacks.
There also are uncontrollable risk factors such as family history (the leading indicator for heart disease), age and sex.
In Shirley’s case, she has no idea whether she falls into the uncontrollable risk factor category, because she was adopted and doesn’t know her family history, she said.
What she does know is that the more women know about themselves, the healthier they will be, and she encourages them to gather as much information about themselves as they can.
“Women need to know the risk factors,” she said, and she would tell all women “to live a healthy lifestyle so you can be around for another Valentine’s Day for your loved ones.”
“The most important thing I can point out,” she said, “is to be aware of your own body” and pay attention to anything that doesn’t feel right to you.
She reminds us that heart disease is not just a man’s disease, and that women’s symptoms can vary greatly from men’s.
In any medical situation, Shirley stresses that you need to be your own advocate and be sure that everyone who treats you has full knowledge of your medical history.
Shirley is coordinating two WomenHeart programs, one that meets the first Wednesday of the month at Millinocket Regional Hospital and one that meets the second Wednesday of the month at Penobscot Valley Hospital in Lincoln.
The programs feature nutritionists, pharmacists, dietitians, rehabilitation specialists and other speakers who can help women meet their goals for acquiring and maintaining a more healthful lifestyle.
Shirley is available to speak to groups and organizations, and you can receive more information about WomenHeart or her speaking programs by calling her at 794-3242.
In fact, Shirley said, she’d be very happy to talk with people who don’t have heart problems and have the opportunity to offer suggestions to help them stay that way.
More information about WomenHeart is available at www.womenheart.org.
Joni Averill, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402; firstname.lastname@example.org; 990-8288.