By Linda Tishler Levinson
Jailene Rivera is passionate about heart health.
The 26-year-old West Haven, Conn., woman had open-heart surgery in August 2010 and received a mechanical heart valve.
“Because of my experience fighting heart disease as a young woman, I always take every opportunity to inform women of my age group, to take care of their hearts,” Rivera said.
Rivera was 11 years old when a school nurse discovered she had a heart murmur. The cause of the heart murmur has never been determined, she said, although doctors have told her it likely was due to rheumatic fever. They say it was probably due to a strep infection she contracted as a baby in Puerto Rico that went undetected, she said.
When Rivera was 20 years old, she nearly had her surgery, which would have prevented her from ever having children due to the mechanical valve.
“If I never looked for a second opinion, I would have been operated on at age 20, thereby preventing me from having children. I didn’t give up my dream of being a mother,” she said.
Dr. Philip Fazzone, of the Hospital of St. Raphael in New Haven, gave her an alternative: a cardiac catherization. After that procedure, Fazzone determined her heart was healthy enough for Rivera to have a child. She and her husband, Luis, now have a 5-year-old daughter, Julisa.
In 2010, Rivera said she knew the time had come for her surgery. It was performed by Dr. Vasant B. Khachane, a physician at Heart Care Associates.
“My heart condition worsened, and it hindered me from doing almost anything. I had trouble breathing, cold sweats and palpitations. After the surgery, I felt brand new,” she said.
“Eight months after my surgery, I decided to pursue a career that would allow me to give back to people who are battling with heart disease. I enrolled for the medical assisting program at Stone Academy. There, I started to share my story, and I noticed the impact it made in our fundraising efforts for American Heart Association,” she said.
She helped raise $1,000 for the heart association’s Go Red for Women campaign. (The annual Greater Hartford “Go Red for Women” forum and luncheon will be Thursday, Feb. 14.) Professionally, Rivera now hopes to become a cardiac nurse and is planning to attend St. Vincent’s College’s School of Nursing in Bridgeport.
Like Rivera, cardiovascular disease strikes many Latinas. Cardiovascular disease and stroke rank as the number killer of Latinos in the United States, according to the American Heart Association, claiming 27 percent of the 133,000 Latinos who die each year in the U.S.
Nonetheless, Latinos are less likely than other Americans to be at risk for heart disease, faring better than other Americans on five out of seven American Heart Association Life’s Simple 7 heart-healthy goals. These indicators include having higher rates of ideal blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels, physical activity and nonsmoking compared to national averages.
Hispanics in Rhode Island also fared better than the general population in the state. In a 2009 report by the Rhode Island Department of Health, “Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention,” the state reported that in Rhode Island, non-Hispanic whites older than age 65 were more likely to die of heart disease than non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics in the same age group. Non-Hispanic blacks were more likely to have two or more risk factors for heart disease and stroke than those of non-Hispanic whites or Hispanics.
Like most Americans, according to the heart association, the biggest challenges facing Latinos are maintaining a heart-healthy diet and weight. Only two percent eat a healthy diet consistently and less than 25 percent have an ideal body weight compared to the 32 percent national rate.
For all women, the signs of a heart attack may be different than for men, according to the heart association.
Heart attack warning signs for women are chest discomfort, discomfort in other areas of the upper body, shortness of breath, breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or light-headedness.
“As with men, women’s most common heart attack is symptom is chest pain or discomfort, but women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain,” according to the association.
The association stresses that calling 9-1-1 is the fastest way to get lifesaving treatment if a heart attack is suspected.
Information on the heart association’s website is available in multiple languages, including Spanish. The website goredcorazon.org provides information aimed at Latinas.