Following a treadmill stress test, Denise Johnson was rushed to VGH with fears she was having a heart attack. She was prepped for surgery only to have the surgeon decide an operation wasn't necessary as her arteries were clear.
“I was beside myself; I knew this was something physiological rather than anxiety," recalls Denise. “My family physician referred me to Dr. Tara Sedlak. She gave me a heart MRI, which confirmed I have coronary capillary constriction. If it had gone untreated, I could have had serious heart concerns."
Heart disease is the number one killer of women in Canada.
“Most of what we know is based on research in men, but women's hearts are different," says Dr. Sedlak, who heads the Leslie Diamond Women's Heart Health Clinic at VGH. “Our risk factors are different and we present differently. Both men and women commonly feel chest pain; what's often different in women is the radiation pattern of the pain. For instance, women often experience jaw pain or pain through to their backs."
Dr. Sedlak notes there are also differences in the causes of women's heart problems and that many tests commonly administered do not detect these. Some women have tiny tears in the arteries that an angiogram won't detect easily. Other times, women have spasms in their arteries or small blood vessel disease that creates abnormal blood flow. All are difficult to diagnose.
Denise regularly attends the women's only cardiac exercise program offered at the Leslie Diamond Women's Heart Health Clinic at VGH.
“It's a safe place to push myself physically and there's a great community of support," she says. “We also have access to a dietician, educational sessions on heart disease, and other opportunities like meditation and yoga classes."
The clinic also conducts important research into heart health.
“We're developing techniques to diagnose the unusual disorders found in women," says Dr. Sedlak, “and we're working with women who've been identified as being at risk to prevent them from developing heart disease."
Working with women's heart health specialists from across Canada, Dr. Sedlak helped form the Canadian Women's Heart Health Alliance in 2018.
“We're hosting our inaugural 'Wear Red Canada' Day on February 13; we encourage everyone to wear red and learn more about women's heart health," she says.
Dr. Sedlak is participating in a public forum on gender differences in heart disease, risk factors, signs and symptoms February 13 from 9:30 am to noon at UBC Robson Square. The event is open to the public; if you would like to attend, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.