Women's top killer is sneaky

Staff WriterFebruary 11, 2009 

This was not the casting call of Michelle Lepiarz's dreams.

But last week, Lepiarz sat down in front of video cameras at Raleigh's Cameron Village to tell the story of her heart attack.

It's a far more common tale than you might expect.

Although a national survey conducted by the American Heart Association shows only 13 percent of women view heart disease as a health threat, in fact it is the No. 1 killer of women in North Carolina and across the nation. Nearly twice as many women die of heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases as from all forms of cancer.

And, yes, that includes breast cancer.

On a Sunday morning in mid-November, Lepiarz, 56, was getting ready for church when she started experiencing pain in her stomach. It was high in her tummy, right in the middle.

Having had gallbladder problems, she immediately reached for the antispasmodic medicine her endoscopist had prescribed.

This time, though, the pain did not abate. It intensified.

Lepiarz's daughter called her mom's doctor, who told them to meet him at the Rex emergency room.

Lepiarz waited for more than 30 minutes. When they finally took her back, an EKG showed she had suffered a heart attack.

A catheter in her heart revealed significant blockages.

Even as the cardiologist discussed the findings, Lepiarz found it hard to wrap her brain around the news. "I was in a haze, but my daughter told me I just kept saying, 'This is ridiculous.' "

Five days later, Lepiarz underwent quintuple bypass surgery.

Looking back, Lepiarz realizes she attributed many of the symptoms of heart disease to significant weight gain over the past year. She lacked energy. She had pain in her upper arms and shoulders. Even her poorly functioning gallbladder may have been related to reduced blood flow caused by the blockages in her heart.

For other women, shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness or pain in the jaw or back might indicate heart trouble.

"The signs are so easy for women, and doctors, to ignore," Lepiarz said. "Now if I start having any kind of stomachache, I start freaking out."

Lepiarz is still recovering. She was unemployed when the heart attack occurred and had no health insurance. She is struggling to pay for the medicine and exercise programs recommended for heart patients.

But Lepiarz also gives thanks that she survived. She wants to help other women avoid what she went through.

That's the reason she attended one of the casting calls organized by WakeMed and the American Heart Association to identify a local spokeswoman for heart disease.

Lepiarz already does the job informally, everywhere she goes. "Everyone thinks of the heart attack being a man grabbing his chest," she said. "It doesn't work that way, especially for women."

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