One Christmas Eve, just as my family was sitting down to a festive dinner, I received a page from the ER and was told that one of my patients had suffered a massive heart attack. She was unconscious and was being transferred to the ICU. When I arrived about half an hour later, her condition had deteriorated and she was in cardiogenic shock. This means her heart was so damaged that it could not pump enough blood to keep her body alive.
As her daughter and I stood outside her ICU room, and I explained as gently as I could that her mother would probably not survive, her daughter made a comment that I will always remember: "My mother needed a wife." When I looked at her quizzically, she continued, "A wife would have gotten her to the doctor." She went on to say that she suspected that her mother had had warning signs but ignored them.
My patient died the next day, but her daughter's comment had a profound effect on me because she was absolutely right. A wife would not have allowed her husband -- or her brother, or her child or her friend -- to ignore the symptoms. A woman often puts the needs of those she loves before her own. This is true for daily activities and, unfortunately, when it comes to her own health. She may be conscientious about pap smears and mammograms, but heart disease is easy to ignore -- until it hits. That's why the American Heart Association launched Go Red for Women in 2004. It's a grass roots movement designed to teach women about heart health, but it's more than just an awareness campaign. Go Red empowers women to take action. It challenges a woman to "know her numbers," recognize the symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, and make healthy lifestyle changes so that her family members do not have to stand outside of an ICU, hearing the devastating news that I gave that night.
We women are all about relationships. That's what makes us such great mothers, spouses, sisters, friends and coworkers. And that's why Go Red for Women connects women with other women -- women who are survivors, women who have lost loved ones, women who have successfully reduced their risk of heart attack or stroke by exercising, eating right, losing weight, and/or controlling blood pressure and cholesterol. Surveys show that almost 90 percent of women who join Go Red for Women make at least one healthy behavior change. That's pretty impressive -- and shows the power of connecting woman to woman.
With Valentine's Day just around the corner, it's a fitting time to consider your heart and what you can do to protect this most vital of all organs. Heart disease and stroke kill approximately 400,000 women each year. That's more than the top three cancers combined! Visit GoRedForWomen.org and join the movement. It's easy and it's free. You'll find all kinds of information and, who knows, it just might be lifesaving for you or someone you love.
You've probably seen the iconic red dress; it's the symbol of this fight to save women's lives. Wear red and wear it proudly. It signifies your intent to honor your heart. Friday February 1 is National Wear Red Day, and we want to blanket this country in red. You'll see landmarks, stores, news anchors, celebrities and people on the street decked out in red to promote awareness of this devastating, but preventable, disease. So please join the fight. Go Red on February 1 by wearing red, dressing your kids in red, buying red ties for the men in your life and even consider putting red lights in your windows! Do whatever you can to let others know that you care about your heart.
Sadly, the scene that I described with my patient happens every minute of every day in hospitals across this country. But together we can change that. So join the movement and... be your own wife. Take care of your heart. Do it for yourself. Do it for those you love and who love you.
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.