For almost four years, Mohinder Doman didn’t know what was wrong with her.
It started in 1999 with what she thought was indigestion and bouts with a cold. The indigestion lingered and she started feeling increasingly fatigued. She visited numerous doctors, each one telling her it was nothing to worry about, attributing her ailments to aging. She was in her 50’s at the time.
Tightness in her chest, joint pains in her shoulders and swollen feet followed, but repeated doctor visits yielded nothing but pain relief medication and a recommendation to rest.
“There was one particular day … I was at home and I was just so ill,” Doman said. “I could hardly move and there was no point in going to see a doctor because I had already been many times and they always dismissed me.”
Doman’s health was in decline.
She had difficulty standing in the shower and the steam affected her breathing. She gained weight, was constantly tired and turned down a wedding invitation because she felt too weak to leave home. She was also bruising easily.
One day, a friend who was a nurse made a surprise visit, shocked by her physical condition, she took Doman to see a doctor who diagnosed her with congestive heart failure.
She learned through an angiogram that she had multiple heart attacks.
“I thought this couldn’t be possible because I was thinking, if you have (a heart attack), you die,” Doman said. “How could I have had a number of them?”
Heart disease is the number one killer of women, said Carolyn Thomas, who hosts the annual Cardiac Cafe at the University of Victoria.
A heart attack survivor herself, Thomas leads a lecture, where she shares her experience and knowledge gained from the WomenHeart Science and Leadership Symposium at the Mayo Clinic. She said the symptoms of heart disease for women and men are very different and it is common for doctors to misdiagnose women.
“Up to 40 per cent of women experiencing a heart attack don’t have chest pains at all,” Thomas said. “It’s quite different than what we see in Hollywood movies, where a person clutches their chest and falls down.” Thomas was able to walk and talk during her heart attack.
Thomas had her heart attack in 2008 when she was 58. She was out for a walk when she experienced crushing chest pain, but it was the pain on the left side of her arm that made her wonder if she was having a heart attack. She didn’t think it was possible as she was a distance runner and lived a healthy, active lifestyle.
“I did go to emergency, because of the arm pain,” Thomas said.
She was told by the emergency room doctor that it was just acid reflux. “I then thought this acid reflux was brutal. How can people handle this?”
However, she knew arm pain meant something more, even though many doctors said she was fine.
“Don’t be like me,” Thomas said. “You know your body and you know when something is not right.”
Thomas eventually found a doctor who diagnosed her correctly and discovered that complications she had during pregnancy almost 30 years prior, actually increased her chances of having heart problems.
Doman learned that she had experienced all the symptoms associated with heart disease. She discovered her heart was clogged and her ejection fraction, a measurement of how much blood is pumped out of the heart, was at a dangerously low 14 per cent. The norm ranges from 55 to 70 per cent.
She spent a month in hospital and lost 65 pounds, which was mostly fluid.
Surgery was not an option as she was too weak. However, one year later her ejection fraction was normal and she was well enough for surgery.
In November 2004, she underwent a quintuple bypass at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver. Now, she feels lucky to be alive.
“If it wasn’t for my friend who came unexpectedly to visit, I would not be here speaking to you,” Doman said. “I want people to know that they should pay attention to their body.
“Above all, don’t brush it off and don’t let anyone tell you it’s nothing or it’s all in your head, when you know something is wrong.”
Thomas’ fifth annual Cardiac Cafe is Feb. 22 at UVic and often sells out. Tickets $12 at 250-472-4747 or uvcs.uvic.ca. Thomas’ website is at myheartsisters.org.