By Linda Tishler Levinson
Eva Gomez, a nurse from Newton, MA, wants to remind Latinas that they need to take care of themselves — their hearts in particular.
Now in her 40s, Gomez said that she learned the hard way that she needs to work to maintain a healthy heart. When she was in her 20s and just out of nursing school, she was diagnosed with a heart murmur.
“Being a nurse, I thought, I’m fine, I’m healthy,” she said. Her mistake, she admitted, was not going to a cardiologist at that time.
When Gomez was 38, her blood pressure began rising. She said she realized that she was having heart disease symptoms, such as shortness of breath, but attributed them to needing to exercise more and simply ignored the signs.
She finally went to a cardiologist and learned she had a bicuspid aortic valve, meaning the blood was backing up into her heart. The doctor also found an aneurysm scratching the aorta.
“This is the same condition that John Ritter, the actor, died of,” she said.
In September 2010, Gomez underwent a two-part surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She had a Dacron graft, during which part of her heart was replaced with an artificial valve and part with a pig’s valve.
“At 38 I wasn’t ready to go to a mechanical valve,” she said. A mechanical valve would have meant taking blood thinners for the rest of her life.
The surgery was a success.
“These days I have energy,” Gomez said. “There’s not a day I’m not reminded how lucky I am … That’s really why I volunteer with the American Heart Association.”
With that luck, however, comes that knowledge that she must take care of her heart, something she said is particularly challenging for Latinos.
“Unfortunately, our community has a lot of obesity,” she said, noting Latinos have multiple risk factors.”We as Latinos know that the diet and making the diet better is something we can take care of. I think it’s time that we open the conversation.”
Like Gomez, cardiovascular disease strikes many Latinas. Cardiovascular disease and stroke rank as the No. 1 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 non-smoking compared to national averages.
Like most Americans, according to the heart association, the biggest challenges facing Latinos are maintaining a heart-healthy diet and weight. Only 2 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.
One challenge for Latinos, according to Mary Ann Burns, director of communications for the American Heart Association in Connecticut and Western Massachusetts, is finding healthy alternatives to traditional recipes. She said the association’s website, www.heart.org, offers healthy recipe alternatives
Information on the website is available in multiple languages, including Spanish. The website goredcorazon.org provides information aimed at Latinas.
(Photo by quinn.anya via Flickr)