Last year, as I started the search for the 2012 Red Dress Award honorees -- an event that Woman's Day holds annually to spotlight doctors, researchers and advocates who are making a difference in the fight against heart disease in women -- I came across two incredible women: Katherine Leon and Laura Haywood-Cory.
When Katherine Leon had a heart attack in 2003 at just 38 years old, she was shocked to learn that it was due to a rare condition called spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) in which the coronary artery tears. But she was even more astonished when doctors said there was no research on SCAD and they couldn't explain why it happened, if it would happen again or whether her children were at risk for the condition. Right then and there she vowed to not only fully regain her own life, but to also save the lives of other women who might be at risk for SCAD.
Katherine joined the online community of WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women With Heart Disease, and gathered 70 SCAD survivor stories. She then asked Sharonne Hayes, MD, head of the Mayo Clinic Women's Heart Center in Rochester, Minn., to research the condition. Impressed that Katherine had already gathered 70 patients, Dr. Hayes was convinced that she could put together a study. So Katherine, along with fellow WomenHeart community member Laura-Haywood Cory (who had a heart attack from SCAD in March 2009 at age 40) recruited participants for a pilot study, which then lead to the development of a SCAD patient registry and a databank of DNA samples from patients and their families to test for genetic mutations. Over 400 people have volunteered for the registry so far, and Dr. Hayes hopes to discover what causes SCAD and how to treat and prevent this life-threatening condition, for which women seem to be at higher risk than men.
Amazingly, Katherine and Laura not only survived heart disease -- they spearheaded groundbreaking research.
The stories of Katherine and Laura show just how much progress has been made when it comes to raising awareness of heart disease in women -- and how far we have yet to go. Back in 2000, when Woman's Day made heart disease in women its signature cause, advocacy groups like WomenHeart were just starting up and the American Heart Association had just released its first guidelines to prevent heart disease in women. Only 34 percent of women were aware that heart disease is their number one health risk. In the next four years, the women's heart health movement exploded with the establishment of The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's The Heart Truth in 2002 and the American Heart Association's Go Red For Women movement in 2004.
To bring more attention to the cause, Woman's Day established the Red Dress Awards in 2004, and the progression of honorees over the last 10 years is a testament to the tremendous advances that are being made. Early on, it was a struggle to find prominent personalities who were speaking out. But in the past few years, Woman's Day has honored Laura Bush, Barbara Walters, Hoda Kotb, Star Jones and Dr. Mehmet Oz, and this year, our honorees include Olympic swimmer Dana Vollmer who, after triumphing over her own heart condition, has become an American Heart Association National Volunteer.
The stories of female heart disease survivors like Katherine, Laura, Star and Dana are inspiring, yet every year when I start gathering stories to include in the special heart section in the February issue of Woman's Day, I'm disappointed that there are still so many women talking about how their heart disease was almost missed -- the woman who suddenly becomes winded on her daily walk but assumes she's just out of shape, the woman who is unusually tired for days but keeps putting off a visit to the doctor, and perhaps most upsetting, the woman who goes to the ER with chest pains but instead of being screened for heart disease, is told she's stressed out and sent home.
So we must keep pushing. After all, research shows that just over half of women (54 percent) know that heart disease is their number one risk. While up from 34 percent, that number should be much closer to 100 percent.
Celebrate the 10th National Wear Red Day with the AHA's Go Red for Women movement this Friday, February 1st and raise awareness of heart disease in women, but take it a step further: Find out if you're at risk for heart disease. Talk to your doctor. Talk to your relatives to see if anyone has a heart condition--including high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Exercise. Eat healthy. Take time to de-stress--and don't feel guilty for one second about putting yourself--and your own health--first.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the American Heart Association in recognition of Wear Red Day, the aim of which is to raise awareness that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. To read all the stories in the series, click here.