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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, February 10, 2011

WomenHeart Champion teaches how to thrive, and not just survive,, with heart disease

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Deborah Flaherty-Kizer knows the effects of heart disease can be devastating.

At the tender age of 19, her dreams were dashed.

She had wanted to be among the first class of women accepted to the United States Naval Academy. “My dad had gone there and died in the service of his country. I wanted to honor him,” she said. He had been a pilot and his plane crashed when she was just six months old.

At 19, she had passed all of the tests — even the physical exam — to be admitted. But, when she revealed she had a congenital heart disease, Ebstein anomaly, her admission was stymied.

“I was devastated,” she said.

Flaherty-Kizer is 53 now and has led a rich and varied life. Her most recent application was accepted. She is one of 55 women from across the nation to graduate from the annual WomenHeart Science and Leadership Symposium at Mayo Clinic. Her goal now is to educate her community about heart disease — the leading killer of women — and to form a support group.

WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease was founded in 1999 by three women who, in their forties, had heart attacks and faced many obstacles, including misdiagnosis and social isolation. So far 520 women have been honored with the WomenHeart Champion title. The organization refers to them as the “boots on the ground” in the fight against heart disease.

“I saw the call to apply in a health magazine,” said Flaherty-Kizer. “It seemed like a perfect fit. I wanted to do volunteer work with a personal connection.”

Flaherty-Kizer was born with the rare Ebstein anomaly, which she describes as “a malfunction of the tricuspid valve...It’s placed lower and doesn’t close properly,” she said.

She would get short of breath in gym class and was diagnosed with the anomaly as a teenager. She didn’t let the diagnosis stop her.

After the Naval Academy rejection, she graduated from Regis College in Massachusetts with a double major — in French and chemistry. She then combined the two with a master’s degree in technical writing from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and landed a job with AT&T, which paid for her to get a master’s degree in business administration from New York University.

“I just love school,” said Flaherty-Kizer.

She met her husband, who did computer consulting, on the job.

Because of her heart condition, she was unable to bear children but found the fulfillment of motherhood through adoption. She and her husband adopted two siblings — Colin, who is now 19, and Abigail, who is 18.

“It is important for women to know that they can lead a healthy life with heart disease,” she said. Flaherty-Kizer swims a half-mile three days a week at the YMCA, she has completed two indoor triathlons, and she takes ballet.

“I even performed in The Nutcracker with my daughter,” she says. “You can thrive, not just survive, with heart disease.”

Awesome women

At the Mayo Clinic symposium, Flaherty-Kizer learned both from lectures by top medical staff and from the experiences of the other heart-disease survivors. The women, whom she describes as “awesome,” ranged in age from 33 to 77.

Heart disease often goes undiagnosed in women until it is too late. While men often have sudden and extreme chest pain, making them and their doctors aware of the myocardial infarction, or heart attack, women frequently don’t have those symptoms.

“One woman said it was like a pinch in the neck, and it turned out to be a heart attack,” said Flaherty-Kizer. “We get misdiagnosed.”

She listed these “non-chest” symptoms that women can have: neck, jaw, or shoulder pain; abdominal pain; nausea and vomiting; shortness of breath; or prolonged chest discomfort.

“If you think you’re having a heart attack, call 9-1-1,” she advised. “Don’t delay.”

She went on, “Women tend to think of it as a man’s disease. It’s not. It’s the number-one cause of death in women.”

Once women are diagnosed, they often aren’t pushed to do cardiac rehab, she said. “Women are handled differently than men.”

Know your numbers

“Women need to know their numbers,” said Flaherty-Kizer. “We need to know our risks and know the system.”

The WomenHeart website, she pointed out, goes over the essential numbers women should be aware of.

First of all, body mass index, which can be learned by consulting a chart for BMI with weight on one axis and height on the other, should be less than 25. Waist circumference should be less than 35 inches for a woman.

Fasting glucose should be less than 100 mg/dL and blood pressure should be less than 120/80 mmHg.

Cholesterol numbers are also important to know. A fat-like substance in blood, too much cholesterol builds plaque in arteries, narrowing them and reducing blood flow to the heart. So-called “bad cholesterol,” LDL, should ideally be less than 100 mg/dL although 100 to 159 is acceptable. HDL or “good cholesterol” should be 50 mg/dL or higher.

The best way to control cholesterol is through diet, low in saturated fats and trans fats, high in fruit and grains.

Flaherty-Kizer realizes that many women affected by heart disease feel isolated. She vividly recalls an incident from 16 years ago when, while working for AT&T, she mentioned to a colleague that she was going to Boston to see her cardiologist.

“This woman started to cry,” she recalled, when Flaherty-Kizer told her she had Ebstein anomaly. “It turned out her four-month-old daughter had the same illness and she had never met anyone who had lived through it. It was such a comfort to her.”

Flaherty-Kizer would like to start a support group for those affected by heart disease. She urges anyone who is interested to e-mail her at dflahertykizer@nycap.rr.com.

“It will be a chance for women to come together and have a safe place to discuss their heart disease,” she said. “They’ll realize they’re not alone. Too often, women nurture others but don’t take care of themselves.”

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