Thursday, January 10, 2008

Heart disease - not just chest pain

When Dale Hoppen experienced symptoms of heart disease, she says she felt like she was eating a lemon. Although there wasn’t a sour taste, the most prominent symptom was tightness in her jaws.

“You know how the sides of your jaw tighten up when you bite into a lemon? That’s the kind of feeling, but it went underneath my chin and around. It radiated from one side to another – from the left ear to the right ear,” says Hoppen.

Hoppen, a retired elementary school teacher and mother of two, lives in a neighborhood on Cape Cod. Though her children are now grown, Hoppen says she and her husband try to stay active and know about the nutrition that prevents heart disease.

“We both knew how to eat well. Whether or not we stuck with it was another thing,” says Hoppen.

Managing a Healthy Lifestyle

On a daily basis, Hoppen manages high blood pressure, high cholesterol and, recently, type II diabetes. To combat these conditions, she tries to incorporate exercise and a healthy diet into her life, but she admits it’s a difficult lifestyle change.

“I always exercised but it was sporadic. There were times when I’d be gung-ho about it and then stop,” says Hoppen.

Hoppen also bears the burden of a family history of heart disease. Her mother had a triple bypass and eventually passed away from a heart attack. Her father lived with high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Despite the strong family history of heart disease, Hoppen only called her doctor about the jaw pain when a colleague’s mother felt similar symptoms, which led her to a cardiac stress test.

“None of these were typical symptoms of a heart attack,” says Hoppen.

A Typical Day, Atypical Symptoms

Conscientious and honest, Hoppen admits she likes routine, worries a bit too much, and doesn’t respond well to change. On a typical day in 2001, she was concerned about upcoming changes in her class schedule at the elementary school. As she stressed about the changes, once again, she felt severe jaw pain. Casually considering the pain, she walked through the hallway of the school and past the principal.

In the middle of the night, Hoppen awoke to more jaw pain and heaviness in her arms and on her breast plate.

“Both of my arms just got so heavy it was like I couldn’t even lift them - like I just did body pumps with weights. My arms were so tired,” says Hoppen.

Her husband rushed her to Cape Cod Hospital, where she met Nandita Scott, MD, now a cardiologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center. Scott recommended a cardiac catheterization, which eventually determined that Hoppen needed stent work.

Even after the stent work, Hoppen experienced bouts of jaw pain and other cardiovascular disease symptoms. Determined to stay healthy, this time she asked Scott about her symptoms right away.

Scott and the cardiac surgery team at the Mass General Hospital Heart Center determined that Hoppen’s stent was already clogged, and she needed a triple bypass. On a Monday in August of 2002 a hesitant Hoppen went into the operating room for her bypass. On Friday she was able to go home.
Tuning into Her BodyToday Hoppen still attends rehabilitation once a week and is slowly starting a walking routine. Now retired, she strongly recommends slowing down and removing unnecessary day-to-day stress. She also believes women and men alike should tune into their bodies and pay attention to possible symptoms of heart disease.

“When your body feels different, act on it,” says Hoppen.

Scott stresses that it is better to be told symptoms are not heart-related than to ignore a potential problem.

"While women may still have classic heart symptoms described and seen in men, women are more likely to have atypical chest symptoms including chest burning, back pain, shortness of breath or fatigue," continues Scott, "The bottom line is that if it doesn't feel right, have yourself evaluated."

A proud mother of two, she spends her time on Cape Cod with her family and two dogs. These days, she keeps her stress levels relatively low, except when trying to control her two mischievous laboratory retrievers. “And one is eating something that I don’t know what it is,” laughs Hoppen as she grabs onto one of her dogs.

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