Coronary Microvascular Disease (CMD) affects some of the tiniest arteries that supply blood to the heart. Women are more likely to get CMD than men, but standard tests don't always catch it.
Even when women tell their doctors they're having symptoms like chest pain and difficulty breathing, they can still walk away without a true diagnosis or proper treatment. They often end up feeling like no one is listening to them.
Just ask Carrie Lange.
In 2006, Carrie was 34 weeks into her first pregnancy when her blood pressure soared to 200 over 110. Her hands and ankles swelled from fluid accumulation. She met her doctor at the hospital and was diagnosed with preeclampsia, a complication of pregnancy that can be life threatening. For the health of her and the baby, she gave birth soon after.
"That's when everything started," said Carrie. "While our daughter remained at the hospital, I began experiencing sporadic chest pains, palpitations, and shortness of breath." She added that after seeking help from a doctor, she was diagnosed with postpartum anxiety. "They put me on anti-anxiety medication, which started a 16-year whirlwind of physicians telling me the symptoms were all in my head." In each of her two subsequent pregnancies, Carrie experienced preeclampsia, which increased her symptoms.
She repeatedly sought answers from a variety of physicians. "Every doctor cleared me of heart disease, and every one of them handed me medication to treat what they diagnosed as anxiety. Every time. So finally, I just stopped going. I knew I didn't need that medicine. I knew I didn't have anxiety."
With two master's degrees, Carrie worked for years as a special education elementary school teacher. She loved her work. But over time, as her symptoms increased, she eventually had to resign her position. "I had such extreme fatigue, and it was terrifying when I was unable to catch my breath. I stopped working. I struggled to take care of my family. I couldn't function."
For nearly two decades, she experienced debilitating symptoms without understanding the true cause—until, in a fortuitous moment, her mother heard Dr. Odayme Quesada speak about the connection between preeclampsia and cardiac disease. She was seen by Dr. Dean Kereiakes at The Christ Hospital Heart and Vascular Institute, who suspected the true diagnosis and immediately referred her to Dr. Quesada.
"Just listening to Carrie's story, I became suspicious of microvascular disease," said Dr. Quesada, medical director of the Women's Heart Center at The Christ Hospital. "My current research is focused on investigating whether preeclampsia, which Carrie experienced in her pregnancies, results in microvascular disease. With proper testing, I confirmed an official diagnosis of microvascular dysfunction." Dr. Quesada confirmed what no one had been able to pinpoint or diagnose in 16 years.
Dr. Quesada said that Carrie's experience is unfortunately all too familiar, having met many women whose heart disease was left undiagnosed. "That's why The Women's Heart Center was created—to address the overwhelming gap in women's cardiac care. Our team of cardiologists, advanced practitioners, and specialized nurses provide women with a place where they are listened to, cared for, and diagnosed."
All Carrie knows is that once she began the treatment for her heart disease, her symptoms improved. "I was able to carry my child up the stairs and noticed that I could exercise longer without having to take multiple breaks," she said.
Recently, Carrie reported a continued difficulty catching her breath. "Dr. Quesada dug into my symptoms and correctly suspected this was unrelated to my heart condition and likely related to my diaphragm and, once again, she was correct," said Carrie. "Yes, she is a phenomenal heart specialist, but she treated me as a whole person."
"Part of the silver lining is that I am absolutely determined to share my experience with other women," she said. "What would I tell them? Heart disease is not treated with a prescription for Lexapro. If you are concerned that you may have heart disease, do not be deterred from visiting the team at The Women's Heart Center to obtain your answer. Believe me, they are the real deal."
Thankful to Dr. Quesada and The Women's Heart Center team, Carrie now knows that, although pregnancy stresses the cardiovascular system in any woman, complications in your pregnancy put you at an increased risk for heart disease.
"I want all the women in the region to know that you don't have to go to New York, you don't have to go to Stanford, you don't have to go to Los Angeles—we have the best of the best right here. If you are anywhere near Cincinnati, come to The Christ Hospital, because Dr. Quesada and the team at The Women's Heart Center are world-class."
Take Our Women's Heart Risk Assessment
Approximately one in three women in the United States has a form of cardiovascular disease, and 90% of women have at least one risk factor for heart disease. The Christ Hospital is dedicated to continued learning and research to better understand these risk factors and help improve outcomes. As a part of these efforts, we're conducting a Women's Heart research study and are actively looking for participants. Take the survey today to see if you qualify and to learn more about compensation and benefits for participation.