Every month should be Heart Disease Awareness Month

The call came from a distant neighbor on a beautiful Friday night in September  2004.  7:22 p.m. I was giving a report at work after a busy 12-hour shift. My father had collapsed in our driveway. He was not breathing, had a tube in his throat to keep it clear, and was en route for my hospital, with my younger sister following behind the ambulance. I wanted to be optimistic but this distant neighbor was a nurse at a local emergency room and her voice gave me no hope. He was not going to survive. 

I had to call my mother and older sister with the news.  My mother was out of town and told me to call her when the doctors evaluated him. I had to be blunt. I told her his heart stopped, and he was not breathing on his own. She sped home.

Healthy eating can be just one step to having a healthy heart. (David Swanson / Staff Photographer)

My dad, age 54, just months after retiring from a 31-year career with Peco and weeks after passing his cardiac stress test, was pronounced dead immediately on arrival to my ER. No one slept that night.

As February quickly approaches, I'm anticipating the mass media campaigns that will be plastered across the nation to bring awareness to heart disease.  A truly great message, but reality tells us that heart disease remains the leading cause of death for both men and women, and awareness needs to be a yearly campaign with the active participation of all nurses.  

In a new role with Quality Improvement, I review patient charts with a diagnosis of STEMI (S-T, a segment of the EKG, elevation myocardial infarction, AKA a heart attack, a very unstable and often fatal event).  Patients affected by this diagnosis and cardiac disease seem to be younger than ever. Particularly men in their 40s seem to be the trend in my emergency department. Statistics show that someone has a heart attack every 34 seconds despite gender or age. Each minute, someone in the United States will die from heart disease.

It was believed that my father collapsed and died of a heart attack, particularly a STEMI.  I get a wave of nausea and empathy every time a patient and/or family experience news of a heart attack and realize that the patient may not return home the same. Each STEMI chart that comes across my desk makes me realize how important early prevention can be. 

Diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, inactivity and smoking are all considered risk factors for heart disease. Ironically, my father did not have a history of any of the named risk factors. But, regardless of what you call it - coronary artery disease, vessel disease, chronic angina or heart disease - it kills. A majority of the patients I see as a nurse are likely affected.  Even pediatric nurses can’t ignore the problem; one in three children is overweight and obese, inactivity and childhood diabetes is on the rise, and up to a third of young adults have cholesterol levels above the acceptable range.

My father never knew my husband, he didn’t get to meet his grandson, and he didn't really know me as an adult. But, most of all, he didn’t know how his life was going to end and the impact he would have on my career and the nurses and patients I encounter daily. 

It seems as though every family has a story to tell, a member of their hierarchy that is greatly missed from sudden illness or tragedy. I ask that nurses make a pledge to make heart disease awareness a daily personal and professional practice goal in 2012. At my hospital, we have a heart rescue initiative that teaches nurses best care practices in these events, an initiative in which I have become heavily involved. In a previous blog, I addressed why I became a nurse, but my father is why I remain a nurse.

What about you? Do you have a story to share about heart disease in your family?

For more information on heart disease and stroke, visit CDC's Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention.