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Knowledge Combats Women’s Heart Disease

Rush Oak Park Hospital offers essential support network

Heart disease survivor Susan Garrison.

Annabelle Volgman, MD, and Susan Garrison, one of her patients, share a common enemy: heart disease.

The No. 1 killer of women, heart disease is more deadly than all forms of cancer—and yet, according to Dr. Volgman, it’s “undertreated, understudied and misunderstood by women themselves.”

“We’ve made great strides,” says Dr. Volgman, a cardiologist at Rush Oak Park Hospital, “but much work remains to be done. Women with potential heart disease need places where they are listened to and taken seriously, where their symptoms won’t be dismissed as stress or hormonal. This is equally true for women living with heart disease. They need as much information, encouragement and support as possible to improve their health and the confidence that goes with it.”

Toward this end, Dr. Volgman founded the Rush Heart Center for Women at Rush University Medical Center 12 years ago. At Rush Oak Park Hospital, she has helped establish another type of endeavor designed to fight women’s heart disease: the Rush/WomenHeart Chicago West group, managed by Garrison and her co-leader, Alberta England.

WomenHeart is the product of the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease, a support network devoted to improving the health and quality of life of women living with or at risk of heart disease. WomenHeart groups are run by “WomenHeart Champions,” women with heart disease who are selected for training at Mayo Clinic to share their stories and empower their peers to take charge of their health.

For Garrison, who trained to be a WomenHeart Champion at Dr. Volgman’s urging, the fight against women’s heart disease is a deeply personal one. It began 10 years ago when she had her first heart attack, was told her by her local hospital that her artery was too small to stent, and sent home.

“I went on with my life as if nothing had happened,” she says. “I thought it was a fluke.”

But five more heart attacks over the next 10 years changed her perspective—and her mission in life. Today Garrison describes herself as “a 60-year-old who feels like a 30-year-old” thanks to lifestyle changes and Dr. Volgman.

“Surviving heart disease gave me a new purpose,” she says, and Dr. Volgman helped her find a way to channel it.

Buoyed by a week of intense training, Garrison and co-leader England established the Rush/WomenHeart group last year. Garrison said the response thus far has been positive.

“It’s been great. It can be difficult to convince women to make time for themselves and their health, but that is part of the process of raising awareness.”

Garrison added that women of all ages at risk or diagnosed with heart disease are welcome to participate in WomenHeart at Rush Oak Park, no matter where any previous care may have been received.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to trade experiences, try a heart-healthy snack, bring home a recipe, and listen to an expert talk on a women’s heart health topic,” she says. “It’s terrific. Join us!”

For more information, contact WH-ChicagoWest@womenheart.org or call (847) 404-2952.