Myrtle Hayden woke up one Saturday feeling crummy. She had a "heavy feeling in my arms, my stomach felt queasy, and I kept having these terrible pains across my back."
Mrs. Hayden, then 67, went to the emergency room the following day. "They did an EKG and a blood work-up, and they didn't show anything," recalls Mrs. Hayden, now 74 and living in Sharon, Conn.
Because she didn't have any of the classic symptoms of a heart attack, such as intense chest pain, she says, "the doctors really pooh-poohed the idea that it might be heart-related. ... They kept saying I was probably just coming down with the flu."
Mrs. Hayden, however, insisted the ER personnel call her personal physician. He ordered another EKG, and that she remain hospitalized overnight. The next day, Mrs. Hayden had a full-scale heart attack. But because she'd listened to "that little angel on my shoulder," Mrs. Hayden was in the right place at the right time â€“ the hospital.
She listened to her intuition, and it probably saved her life.
And that, in a nutshell, is the message of Heart Sense For Women: Your Plan for Natural Prevention and Treatment (LifeLine Press, $21.95), a new book by Dr. Stephen T. Sinatra of Manchester, Conn.
"I really hope this shakes women into seeing that heart disease is not a man's disease, despite the myth that prevails in this country," says Dr. Sinatra, 53, who founded the New England Heart Center in Manchester, Conn. He also is the author of Heartbreak and Heart Disease, Lose to Win: A Cardiologist's Guide to Weight Loss and Optimum Health.
"Women are terribly afraid of breast cancer, and they have chances of about one in nine of getting that," Dr. Sinatra says.
"But their chances of heart disease or stroke are much greater â€“ less than one in three. There's a tremendous lack of awareness. Heart disease is what's going to kill most women in America â€“ it's epidemic."
And because most health-care professionals haven't been trained to look for heart disease in women patients, he says, it's especially crucial that women "follow the voice of their hearts, literally.
"Pay attention to what your intuition is telling you and demand treatment based on that," Dr. Sinatra says. "If you betray that voice inside, you're putting yourself in harm's way."
Heart Sense focuses on what Dr. Sinatra calls "the medical gender gap" â€“ how women's hearts are different from men's, why heart medications work differently for women and men, how early warning signals may be totally different for women than for men (the first warning sign in women, Dr. Sinatra says, may be sudden death), and why women are at greater risk of "silent" heart attacks.
Women's intuition, he says, "may be more reliable than any prescription" when it comes to guarding the health of both themselves and their loved ones.
For example, "We had a patient whose wife brought him in, they saw an internist and were about to be sent home. The EKG was normal, so he didn't seem to be a candidate for heart problems," Dr. Sinatra says.
"But the wife fought for him. She demanded that he see a cardiologist. He ended up having an emergency bypass â€“ the guy was at death's door. She knew intuitively, and she won."
That was 19 years ago. "That same woman was in the office recently and saw the book, and she said, 'Yep, Dr. Sinatra, if I hadn't listened to my intuition, I'd have lost my husband back then.' And she's absolutely right."
For women patients, the signs of heart disease may be extremely subtle, and often tend more toward mental manifestation than physical symptoms, Dr. Sinatra says.
Common signs of heart problems in women include stress, indigestion, chronic generalized fatigue, shortness of breath and excess sweating with activity. Many women never feel the dramatic onset symptoms that men experience, such as numbness or sharp chest pain.
Dr. Sinatra's wife, Jan, helped write Heart Sense. Mrs. Sinatra has been a cardiac intensive-care nurse and psychotherapist for years, and the case studies in the book are drawn from both her and Dr. Sinatra's patient files. The Sinatras also share co-author credit with writer/editor Roberta Jo Lieberman.
Mrs. Sinatra says, "The same treatment and lifestyle changes simply won't work for every patient. Women really have to be willing to explore."
Heart Sense devotes extensive space to the pros and cons of hormone-replacement therapies in protecting women's hearts. The book also delves into vitamin therapy, black women's increased risk for heart disease and steps women should take when diagnosed with heart disease.
The Sinatras say relaxation and spiritual healing are key to heart health. The book's recommendations include "spiritual exercise" (yoga, Tai Chi, dance or deep breathing), massage or other types of body work, "crying it out," using visualization and imagination to harness and channel healing resources, prayer and meditation, spending "silent time," practicing forgiveness, and connecting with animal friends, who Dr. Sinatra calls "heart guides for the Type A soul."
His wife sums up the lesson they hope to impart: "No woman, regardless of her age or health, should rule out the possibility of heart disease or a heart condition. ... You've always got to be your own advocate and keep pushing. We also want to help women learn to better articulate their own symptoms, which can, in turn, help doctors spot things earlier on."
For more information, see Dr. Stephen Sinatra's Web site, www.drsinatra.com.
Joy Dickinson is a free-lance writer in Corrales, N.M.